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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

REVOLVER - side one

For a number of years now, this album has generally been considered to be the Beatles' best.  It is certainly one of their most eclectic.  It showcases the group at the peak of their powers, spending an unprecedented two and a half months in the studio, experimenting as never before and, for the first time, producing music that they simply could not replicate onstage given the equipment available at the time.

Taxman - For the first (and only) time, a composition by Harrison is considered to be strong enough to kick off an album.  This is a dynamite rocker with a mocking lyric about the Beatles' tax situation.  The guitar work is sharp throughout, and the impressive solo is played not by George, but by Paul.  George's influence is present, however, because according to Tim Riley, Paul is playing in a nondiatonic scale based on Indian music.  Paul and John also provide the backing vocals which vary at different points in the song, sometimes doing a call-and-response with George's lead, sometimes merely adding harmony.

What leads us into the song and the album is equally interesting.  We hear coughing, tape being rewound and George doing a laid-back count-in before the band begins playing.  Paul does the real count-in underneath at a different tempo, so the effect is jarring.  We are listening to the sounds of the studio, given just a peek behind the curtain before the music begins.  This is a major transition from Paul's "One, two, three, four!" count-in to the live-in-the-studio album Please Please Me, reminding us of just how far the band has come in a little over three years.

Eleanor Rigby - This excellent song by McCartney was released as a single the same day as the album, and is covered in my previous blog.  Stylistically, it stands in stark contrast to George's rocker, immediately setting up the eclectic nature of the album.

I'm Only Sleeping - A lethargic mood piece by Lennon rounds out the introduction of the band's three composers (George achieves a new status by virtue of this layout).  The lyric describes John's very real withdrawal from the everyday world at this point in his life.  Vari-speed is used here to speed up John's vocal for the first time, and slow down the instruments, as they had done on Rain.  Another carry-over from Rain is the use of backwards tape, this time for guitar.  Mark Lewisohn points out in The Beatles: Recording Sessions that George spent an entire session working out how he wanted his solo to sound, then notated it in reverse before he played it so it would come out right when the tape was run backwards.  A time-consuming process, no doubt, but one that is indicative of just how much time and work they were now willing and able to do to achieve exactly what they wanted.

Love You To - Harrison's second song on this side takes Westerners to a new sonic world.  Since the recording of Norwegian Wood, George had been taking some serious lessons on the sitar and studying Indian musical forms.  Here, he attempts an actual raga, abetted by a tabla player named Anil Bhagwat, who is credited in the liner notes.  The free-form, spacious opening of the song would later be used to introduce the cartoon character of George in the film Yellow Submarine.

Here, There and Everywhere - An absolutely gorgeous ballad by McCartney, regarded by many as his most perfect composition.  It stands out even more since it is one of the only love songs on the album.  The lyric alone is beautiful, with each verse using a place from the title as a starting point.  And the melody is perfection itself - so much so that the instrumentation is as basic as can be and the backing vocals are simple block harmonies. 

Yellow Submarine - I covered this song as a single in my previous blog.  One footnote to that entry - although Ringo had already secured a vocal on a few singles on Capitol Records in the US, this is his one and only single as a frontman in the official Beatles catalog as released by Parlophone Records in the UK.

She Said She Said - A distorted guitar opens this powerful side closer by Lennon.  Inspired by an LSD-fueled encounter in Los Angeles in 1965 with actor Peter Fonda, who told John about a near-death experience he had had, Lennon wrote this unsettling meditation on existence.  The band which had applied such a delicate touch to McCartney's Here, There and Everywhere only two tracks earlier cuts loose here with a vengeance.  The guitars, bass and drums are relentless throughout.  In an interview with drummer Max Weinberg of the E Street Band for the book The Big Beat, Ringo stated that he felt his best work ever was on the track Rain from these sessions.  His work here is equally impressive, simultaneously driving the band forward yet keeping it all together through numerous time changes.  A virtuoso performance.

The UK and US versions of the album are even more similar than the two versions of Rubber Soul.  There are no substitutions - only songs recorded for this album are included.  The US version merely omits I'm Only Sleeping on side one, but that omission limits Lennon to only one song - not at all what one would expect on a typical Beatles' album. 

  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine

The album Revolver was released in August of 1966.  On the same day, two songs from that album were also released as a single.  For the second time, the Beatles' brain trust decided to make it a double A-sided single, unsure which song would fare better in the charts.  As before, the results were mixed in the UK and the US.  Two more dissimilar songs could not be found, although Paul McCartney was the principal composer of both.  Yet they serve as an ideal representation of the album from which they were drawn.

Eleanor Rigby - This brilliant composition is another over which Lennon and McCartney disagree as to who wrote what.  Lennon claims that Paul had the only started on the lyrics, and John then took over and pretty much finished the song.  Most others say that John actually had little to do with the song at all.  Writers generally regard it as a McCartney piece.  The music is definitely his, but it is certainly an uncharacteristic lyric for Paul - about as bleak a portrait of loneliness and alienation as one could imagine, and an unlikely subject for a hit single.

In addition to the outstanding music and lyrics, the recording is graced by a remarkable arrangement by George Martin.  This time, he writes for an octet, creating a stunningly sharp, syncopated backdrop for Paul's vocal.  Martin has said that he was inspired by Bernard Herrmann's score for the Truffaut film Fahrenheit 451, but unless he heard it months before it was released, this is highly unlikely.  Whatever the source of his inspiration, his work is so good that it is presented on Anthology 2 without vocal the track, so it can be appreciated for itself.

John and George add harmony to the line "Ah, look at all the lonely people" the first few times through, making this a true Beatles' recording, unlike Yesterday.

Yellow Submarine - At the opposite end of the spectrum, McCartney wrote this song for Ringo, which can be regarded as a children's tune, a pub singalong or even a psychedelic anthem.  It immediately became a signature piece for the Beatles' drummer, displacing the rockabilly numbers and fast rockers which he had previously sung.

The recording is an absolute lark, with all involved having a blast.  Sound effects abound to create the feeling of the submarine - chains being swirled in watery tubs, bells ringing and, best of all, John way off mike shouting out orders and mirroring Ringo's lines for the final verse.  Everybody in the studio joins in for the last chorus, with Beatles' assistant Mal Evans banging away on a marching band's bass drum.

There was originally a somewhat curious and altogether unnecessary preamble to the song which was later omitted at the mixing stage.  It can be heard (along with some additional sound effects) on the EP Real Love, released in 1996 after Anthology 2.  It features Ringo speaking about walking from Land O'Groats to John O'Green with the sound of marching feet behind him.

In the UK, Eleanor Rigby was a number one hit.  However, in the US, the song only rose to number eleven.  Yellow Submarine was the bigger hit in the States, but just missed out on the top spot, stalling at number two.

Only several months later, Brian Epstein and United Artists agreed to produce a feature-length animated film based on the song Yellow Submarine.  Eleanor Rigby would also be used for what is perhaps the best musical sequence in that film.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Paperback Writer b/w Rain

1966 was a transitional year for the Beatles.  For starters, there was no movie.  No screenplay had been deemed suitable for the group to complete their three-picture deal with United Artists.  And, since there was no need to rush into the studio to record a new batch of songs for a soundtrack, the boys had time to take their first real vacation in years, taking a break not just from working but, to some extent, from each other.

They eventually reconvened at Abbey Road Studios on April 6th to begin work on their next album.  One week into these sessions, they came up with the two songs on this single.  By the time the single came out, it had been a full six months since Rubber Soul - the longest stretch between releases to date in the UK during their career.  And, in that six-month span, they had taken a quantum leap forward.

Paperback Writer - This McCartney composition opens with layers of voices overlapping and singing the title phrase.  The band then enters with George playing the latest in a series of original guitar riffs followed by a new and improved bass sound from Paul.  Engineer Geoff Emerick had worked with the group sporadically over the years, but he was now assigned to them full-time and began to work wonders with their sound in the studio.  His promotion was perfectly timed with what would prove to be the most experimental phase of their career.

The lyrics take the form of a letter to a publisher, with the writer shamelessly hawking his tawdry tale.  "It's a dirty story of a dirty man/And his clinging wife doesn't understand..."  Gone is any pretension of a love song.  From this time forward, seemingly any subject can be fodder for a Beatles' song.  Adding to the wackiness of this production are John and George's backing falsetto vocals, which enter for the third verse.  Listen closely - apropos of nothing, they are merely singing the words "Frere Jacques" over and over.

This is the only song from 1966 (and, therefore, the very last song) that they added to their concert line-up, and though it was not terribly complex, it was rather difficult to perform live given the limited technology available at the time.

Rain - Any fans who were confused or uncertain about what the Beatles were up to on the A-side were completely baffled by Lennon's B-side.  Considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, B-side the group ever recorded, Rain is about states of mind.  Hmm...wonder what prompted this composition?  And yet, as far back as There's a Place on the very first album, John had written about his mind being a refuge from reality - long before his introduction to LSD, or even marijuana.  

The band's introduction to the song sounds muddy, underwater.  They were playing with vari-speed, as George Martin had done for his piano solo on In My Life, only here they were doing the opposite of what Martin had done - they played the backing track at a fast tempo, then slowed the tape down before adding the vocals, thus making the musical backdrop sound...well, drugged. 

The last verse is unintelligible, because it is the first use of backwards tape by the group.  Two conflicting stories are given as the inspiration for this.  One is that John was very high when he got home, mistakenly put a tape of the day's work on his tape player backwards and was fascinated by what he heard.  Another is that Martin simply played a backwards tape for him and John simply had to use the effect immediately.  Whatever the truth is, we can be thankful that the others talked John out of releasing the entire vocal track backwards, as he reportedly desired. 

Perhaps the single was off-putting to some fans, because even though it did go to number one in the UK,  it had the lowest sales of any Beatles' single since Love Me Do.

In addition to being a number one single in the US, both of these songs were re-released at the end of the group's career in February of 1970 on the compilation album Hey Jude.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

RUBBER SOUL - side two

What Goes On - As was the case on the previous album, Ringo's solo spotlight opens the second side.  This rockabilly number was an original by Lennon which the group almost recorded way back on March 5th, 1963 - the day they recorded their third single, From Me to You.  Now, it was handed to the drummer and, with some additional work from Paul and Ringo, it received the unique songwriting credit Lennon/McCartney/Starkey.  As always, the Beatles display their proficiency at performing in this style, particularly George, who provides some fine country-flavored licks.  Toss in John and Paul's fine backing vocals and Paul's walking bass line and it sounds like the boys are having way too much fun laying down this track.

In the US, Ringo's continuing popularity led Capitol Records to release this song as the B-side of the Nowhere Man single.

Girl - Another outstanding Lennon composition, and a recording that has an Old World feel to it.  Oddly, this is achieved in part by use of George's sitar, which sounds more like a mandolin when he plays it in the instrumental break near the end of the song.  As in Norwegian Wood, John's voice has that world-weariness in it as he sings one of his more mature lyrics to date.  That maturity is balanced by Paul and George's backing vocals, which sound as if they are singing "dit dit dit," but which they later admitted were a bit naughty.

I'm Looking Through You - This McCartney composition was remade twice before arriving at a finished product.  The first version, available on Anthology 2, is at a slower tempo and has a stripped-down instrumentation.  It also lacks the superb bridge and its gorgeous melody, making the released version a definite improvement.  Ringo gets credit for playing the Hammond organ this time by hitting the same chord several times at the end of each chorus.

In My Life - A major work, and one of the only songs in the entire catalog to spark a significant disagreement between Lennon and McCartney over who wrote what.  Lennon claims to have written the lyrics and had some help from McCartney with the music, while Paul says he wrote the entire melody.  Whatever the truth may be (and most writers refer to it as Lennon's song), it is a tremendous piece of work.  While still a love song, it places a particular love in perspective with the singer's entire life, and does so simply and beautifully.  The band's playing is equally simple and elegant, except for the intricate instrumental break.  John and Paul asked George Martin to come up with something for that spot in the song and the classically-trained producer came back with a baroque piano solo.  He could not play it at the proper speed, however, so he played it at half-speed and sped up the tape to make it fit.  The Beatles were intrigued by this vari-speed process and would begin experimenting with it liberally on their next album.

Wait - This is the first Lennon-McCartney 50-50 collaboration since Baby's in Black on Beatles for Sale.  They had recorded this song at the final session for Help! in June, but it was put on the shelf when Dizzy Miss Lizzy was chosen to close that album.  Now, at the final session for Rubber Soul, it was dusted off, a few overdubs were added, and it was considered good enough for release.  John and Paul split the vocal duties, with John singing the lead-in to the first and third line of each verse before Paul joins in, and Paul singing the bridge solo.  George uses the tone pedal for his guitar part.  And Ringo does his usual fine job.  In fact, Ringo's work on the entire album is exceptional.  As the work of the other Beatles has matured, he has learned to pull back from the relentless Mersey Beat of the early days and provide just the right setting for the needs of each recording, seldom drawing attention to himself in the process - the mark of a true professional.

If I Needed Someone - Harrison opens his best composition to date with a ringing guitar riff in the style of the Byrds, which repeats throughout the song.  This is a case of an influence coming full circle.  Roger McGuinn and David Crosby had been blown away by George's 12-string Rickenbacker in the film A Hard Day's Night, and consequently built their group sound around chiming guitars.  George returns the favor with this number.  John and Paul provide strong harmony and backing vocals for much of the song, although, to me, John's mid-range harmony seems strangely dominant in the mix.  

Run for Your Life - This brilliant album comes to an unfortunate close with a disturbing number by Lennon.  I place this song in my Restraining Order Hall of Fame along with Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix and Down by the River by Neil Young - really good, catchy songs with despicable lyrics about jealousy resulting in murder or, in this case, the threat of it.  Sure, I know there's a whole tradition of "He/she done me wrong, so I shot him/her" songs in country, jazz, R&B and rock and roll, but that doesn't make it any more palatable, especially coming from a group whose overwhelming message was one of peace and love.  This song, which was the first to be recorded at these sessions, has a real country feel to it, and being one of the only uptempo numbers, Martin chose it to close out the album.

As was the case with side one, the US version of the album is similar, yet significantly different.  Capitol omits If I Needed Someone and replaces What Goes On with It's Only Love from the UK album Help!  The songs Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, If I Needed Someone and What Goes On appeared on the compilation "Yesterday"...and Today in June of 1966.

Friday, December 9, 2011

RUBBER SOUL - side one

You may be surprised to learn that the album generally regarded as the group's first masterpiece was a rush job.  In order to keep pace with the Epstein/Martin master plan of two albums and a handful of singles per year, the Beatles had to have an album out in time for the Christmas market.  In 1963 and '64, they had begun sessions for the end-of-the-year releases in July and August, respectively.  But in 1965, they waited until almost the last possible minute, not going into the studio until October 12th, and with only a handful of new compositions.  By November 11th, they had recorded the single Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out and the album Rubber Soul, received their MBEs from the Queen and appeared on the television special The Music of Lennon and McCartney.  Nobody in show business can produce at that pace and on that level anymore.  Few ever could.

Because of the pressure to deliver the goods, these sessions were by far the most intense yet.  They worked a total of fifteen days, twice as many as for any previous album.  And for the first time, sessions went past midnight, in a few cases becoming all-nighters.  This would become the norm from this time forward, as they began to relish the work in the studio and move away from live performance.  Yet the basic tracks for almost every song were laid down in only a few takes, with numerous overdubs then applied to achieve a finished product.

Drive My Car - The album opens with the smoothest, slinkiest, most seductive song the group ever recorded.  In his book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley writes that, "Drive My Car has the smooth bravado of a Jack Nicholson performance..." - an amusing and altogether accurate description.  Though written primarily by Paul, the song is sung as a duet by Paul and John, with Paul singing in his hard-edged She's a Woman voice.  The guitar work by George and the bass line by Paul are sublime, and they blend together superbly in the instrumental break.  Paul also adds some nice bits on piano, and tambourine and cowbell enhance the percussion.  While technically still a love song, the lyrics are humorous and laced with irony concerning the price of fame - definitely a new direction for the Beatles' songwriting.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - Lennon's subtle and beautiful composition about an affair is his most mature piece of work to date.  It features George's debut on the sitar, the Indian instrument which had fascinated him on the set of Help! earlier in the year.  He had found one in a shop in London and, though he had no formal training on it as yet, John felt confident enough in his ability that he asked George to play it on this track.  If you listen to take one on Anthology 2, his playing sounds clumsy and amateurish.  The Beatles remade the song nine days later, and the improvement in George's technique is nothing less than astonishing.  Indeed, the entire track is superior, John's vocal sounding more world-weary rather than the matter-of-fact approach he had employed on take one.  Paul's gorgeous harmonies round out this perfect recording.

You Won't See Me - This lesser-known number by McCartney is one of my personal favorites.  The instrumentation is basic, with Paul adding the piano part, but the vocals are glorious.  While Paul sings lead, John and George sing backing vocals which build and build throughout the song, and the bridge absolutely soars, with Paul double-tracking a high harmony.  Beatles' assistant Mal Evans is credited on the liner notes as Mal "Organ" Evans for simply holding down one key on the Hammond organ for the final verse and chorus.  Canadian singer Anne Murray had a number eight hit with this song in 1974.  According to an entry on Wikipedia, John Lennon told her that it was his favorite cover version of any Beatles' tune.

Nowhere Man - Lennon seems to have had a real fondness for three-part harmony.  This song opens with him, Paul and George singing a cappella, the instruments entering at the top of the third line.  He sings the verses with the other two backing him wordlessly until they rejoin him for each chorus.  The band is once again just the basic unit, but George's ringing guitar work is tremendous.  He gets an early instrumental break and turns in an elegant solo, culminating in a harmonic note that travels from one speaker to the other in the stereo mix.  This is yet another semi-autobiographical song from Lennon, but he writes it in such a way that it achieves universal meaning.  A few years later, it was put to good use in the film Yellow Submarine in reference to the character of Jeremy Hilary Boob.

In the US, Capitol Records released this as a single in February of 1966.  It reached number three on the Billboard chart.

Think for Yourself - This rocker is George's first offering on the album, and his songwriting is already getting good enough that it fits in nicely with the flow of the album side.  The outstanding sonic feature of the track is Paul's fuzz bass, which pretty much serves as the lead guitar, as well.  In The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn reports that the tape was kept running throughout the session in case anything that occurred could be used in the group's annual Christmas disc for their fan club (nothing was).  In the transcript of the tape, John is having trouble learning George's unorthodox chord sequence for the song.  Probably as a result of this, he is only credited with playing the tambourine and providing backing vocals in William J. Dowlding's Beatlesongs.

The Word - Almost two years before he penned the anthem All You Need Is Love, Lennon wrote this similarly-themed (and many say better) tune.  Again, we have three-part harmony from John, Paul and George for the refrain and John singing solo during the verses.  And again, the harmonies grow and grow as the song progresses.  Paul plays piano as well as a bass line that can only be described as funky (the only time I will ever use that word in reference to the Beatles) under each refrain.  For the instrumental break and the fadeout, George Martin slowly builds a majestic chord on the harmonium. 

Michelle - Side one ends with this minor classic from McCartney.  It is a quiet, romantic number with an earnest lead vocal from Paul and lazy backing "ooh"s from John and George.  The guitar break from George, which he repeats for the fadeout, is quite lovely.  Dylan thought this song and Yesterday were sell-outs.  He accused the group of "trying to appeal to the grannies," but he was overlooking the fact that the Beatles had been populists from the get-go.  They could churn out pop hits and still rock with the best of them.  And right from their first album Please Please Me, they had demonstrated their knowledge of, and appreciation for, a wide spectrum of popular music.  

Side one of the American version of  Rubber Soul is not unlike this lineup, yet the differences are substantial.  It eliminates Nowhere Man and replaces Drive My Car with I've Just Seen a Face at the top, giving the side a more acoustic feel overall.  Over the years, many writers have accused Capitol Records of trying to make the album fit in with the folk/rock scene which was popular at the time.  But the executives at Capitol were not prescient.  When they held back the track I've Just Seen a Face in August, they had no idea what direction the Beatles would be taking months later in the studio.  It only appears that way in retrospect.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out

In the midst of the sessions for their sixth album, the Beatles recorded two tremendous songs, each one good enough to be the A-side of the next single.  The problem was that no one on the creative team could decide which song should actually be the A-side.  The solution?  A double A-sided single.

As I have written about the group's output so far, I have usually referred to a composition as being either a Lennon song or a McCartney song, except for the 50-50 collaborations.  The truth, of course, is more complicated that that.  In many instances, one songwriter would come in with a partially completed tune and rely on input from the other to complete the work.  And the amount of said input could vary a great deal.  But in most cases, we can be certain who the chief composer of any given song was.  The two songs on this single represent John and Paul working together at the height of their powers, collaborating as well as they ever would.

Day Tripper - This hard-rocking pop song is primarily John's.  John and Paul referred to this as a "forced" composition, meaning they were under pressure to come up with a single.  It features what is probably the best of all the guitar riffs ever recorded by the Beatles, outshining even those on Ticket to Ride and I Feel Fine.  The riff opens the song and continues throughout except during the refrain, either building in intensity or falling into the background as necessary.  Vocally, it is the most democratic of songs.  Though a duet overall, Paul sings the first line of each verse before John joins in, and John's voice leads into each refrain.  The instrumental break builds upon the guitar riff until George takes a brief solo moment and the wordless voices behind reach a crescendo.  The riff starts again supported by a tambourine, and then all of the instruments re-enter taking us into the third and final verse.  The power of the sound is quite impressive, especially considering how stripped-down the instrumentation is.  Even one year later, the group would no doubt have added several more layers of overdubs to enhance the sound.

We Can Work it Out - Only days after recording Day Tripper, McCartney came in with this song.  He only had the verses of this lyric about an argument, and they simply weren't enough for a complete song.  John came up with a bridge which perfectly complemented Paul's verses.  Many consider this song to be one of the finest examples of their collaboration.  And while many writers have stated over the years that Paul's voice is the optimistic one and John's is negative, I believe the reverse is true.  When I listen to the lyrics, Paul seems to me to be entrenched in his position, and John is the one who recognizes the futility of fighting. 

As with Day Tripper, the instrumentation is quite simple, but we have a new sound for the Beatles on display here.  John plays a keyboard called a harmonium, which requires a constant pumping motion of the feet.  Until I learned this fact, I mistakenly thought for many years that an accordion was being played on this track.  I was really not far off the mark, since the two instruments produce sound in much the same way.  The harmonium will be heard again on Rubber Soul, in the same way that the electric piano was used repeatedly during the Help! sessions.

For the first time, manager Brain Epstein saw to it that promotional films were made for the two songs, so that it was no longer necessary for the group to appear live on various television shows around the world.  Today, these films can still be enjoyed via YouTube.


Releasing the songs as a double A-sided single produced different results in different countries.  In the UK, Day Tripper went to number one, while in the US, We Can Work it Out was the chart-topper, with Day Tripper still reaching a respectable number five.  The single was available on the same day as the album Rubber Soul in December of 1965, making an impressive output of sixteen new songs in England.

In the US, both songs later appeared on the compilation album "Yesterday"...and Today.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

HELP! - side two

Act Naturally - Of the four Beatles, Ringo had been the critics' darling in A Hard Day's Night, and was generally regarded as the best actor.  With that in mind, the script for Help! put the drummer in the center of the action, even though the Beatles' roles were marginalized overall.  But Ringo was in on the joke - he knew that to be the best actor among four non-actors was no big deal and so, he chose this song for himself for his vocal spotlight.  He had gone the rockabilly route with his previous two offerings, but here, he goes for a true country and western number originally recorded by Buck Owens.  Once again, the boys show just how adept they are at playing in this style, with George turning in some fine guitar work and Paul providing authentic country harmony.  Ringo also seems to be playing his drumsticks on a table top in addition to his drum kit.

In the US, this song appeared as a single.  In his book The Beatles' Story on Capitol Records, Bruce Spizer reveals that Ringo was still so popular in the States that this was originally considered for the A-side, but wiser heads prevailed and Yesterday was given that position.

It's Only Love - Lennon's only original composition on this side is a lightweight piece that he later admitted he was never proud of.  He especially felt that he could have worked more on the lyrics.  Yet producer George Martin liked the melody so much that he recorded it with his orchestra under John's original title That's a Nice Hat (Cap).  The version by the Beatles features George Harrison once again employing his new tone pedal for some lovely guitar work. 

You Like Me Too Much - This Harrison composition was recorded during the February sessions for consideration for the film soundtrack, but didn't make the cut.  I Need You was easily the better choice.  This rather mellow number features John on electric piano and, according to the liner notes, both Paul and George Martin on the same Steinway.  Martin is clearly evident doing his trademark barrelhouse piano on the intro and in the instrumental break, where the two Georges play a musical dialogue.

Tell Me What You See - This McCartney number is also from the February sessions for the film, but was not used.  And it, too, is a mellow piece, sung as a duet by Paul and John.  This time Paul plays electric piano.  In addition to Ringo's drums, claves and a guiro provide some distinctive percussion.

I've Just Seen a Face - It has taken this long to get to the first truly outstanding song on side two, but it was worth the wait.  McCartney's folk/rock number takes off like a runaway freight train after a deceptive half-speed intro.  The words tumble out of Paul breathlessly until he reaches the "Falling" refrain.  Paul, George and John all play acoustic guitars and Ringo uses brushes instead of drumsticks, adding maracas, as well.  This was the first of three McCartney songs recorded on June 14th, 1965, each a different musical style, making different vocal demands on their composer.  Next was the screaming rocker I'm Down, released as a B-side.  And the third was...

Yesterday - The most famous song in the Beatles' catalog and one of the most covered songs of all time.  Paul had had this melody for over a year (George Martin claims that Paul played it for him at the George V in Paris in January of '64), but had only recently set proper lyrics to it.  Previous to this, it had been known by the joke title Scrambled Eggs.  He only did two takes of the song.  Take one is on Anthology 2, preceded by Paul teaching the chords to George Harrison.  Ultimately, it was decided that the other Beatles would not play on the recording and that Martin would score the song for session musicians instead.  This is where Martin's genius comes into play for the first of many times.  Rather than using a full orchestra, as numerous other rock producers had done over the years, Martin opted for a string quartet, which had the effect of making the recording tasteful, elegant and totally unique.  His score, with only a few suggestions from McCartney, is simple and achingly beautiful.  Paul also sings the song quite simply, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.  And the simplicity carries over into the lyrics, which are evocative and universal.

The problem for the Beatles, Martin and manager Brain Epstein was what to do with what was essentially a solo recording.  Everybody knew that it was good enough to be a single, but the others did not want it out as a Beatles record and Epstein would not release it as a solo Paul McCartney single.  In the end, they buried it as the thirteenth track on this album.  On Anthology 2, you can hear Paul's first live performance of the song at Blackpool Night Out, with George Harrison's introduction "...and so, for Paul McCartney of Liverpool, opportunity knocks."  The Help! album had not yet been released and so, the audience is completely unfamiliar with and unprepared for what they hear. 

Capitol Records in America could still do whatever they wanted at this point in time, and they knew a great song when they heard one.  They released it as a single by the Beatles on September 13th.  It was a smash hit.

Dizzy Miss Lizzy - Two Larry Williams rockers, this song and Bad Boy, were recorded at a session on May 10th, specifically for Capitol Records and the American market.  At the last moment, this song was added to this album, probably because George Martin wanted to stick to his formula of closing with just such a number.  John sings and plays Hammond organ, and George plays one of the most annoyingly monotonous guitar riffs ever throughout the song.  Yet, Lennon seems to have had a true fondness for this tune, because the Beatles played it on their final BBC Radio appearance soon after this recording session and added it to their live act.  John even played it with the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto in 1969, with Eric Clapton finding a bit more variation in the repetitive riff.

The UK and US versions of the Help! LP were released in August, 1965.  All of the side one songs appeared on that US album.  The songs on side two were spread out over three additional albums.  You Like Me Too Much, Tell Me What You See and Dizzy Miss Lizzy had already appeared on Beatles VI in June.  I've Just See a Face and It's Only Love would kick off sides one and two respectively of the US version of Rubber Soul in December.  And, in addition to being a single, Yesterday and Act Naturally would appear on the compilation album "Yesterday"...and Today in June of 1966, a full year after they were recorded.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

HELP! - side one

Seven songs, enough for one side of an album, had been the perfect number for the film A Hard Day's Night.  Staying true to form, it was decided that the same would be the case for the new movie.  As before, there was no title when the Beatles reported to the studio, so they only needed to record six songs before filming began.  Rising to the occasion, between February 15th and 20th, 1965, they produced eleven new numbers for consideration for the soundtrack.   

Help! - The title song, recorded on April 13th, 1965, was covered in my previous blog.  Naturally, it leads off the album.

The Night Before - Lennon had dominated the first soundtrack, penning five numbers, but McCartney's contributions, Can't Buy Me Love and And I Love Her, were blockbusters.  Harrison comes up with his own composition this time around, and each of John's songs is noteworthy, but Paul's are merely serviceable.  The Night Before is a pleasant enough song, with a double-tracked lead by Paul and backing vocals by John and George.  It features a rather odd, choppy guitar break by George and has John playing electric piano throughout instead of his usual rhythm guitar.  Director Richard Lester uses this number for the Salisbury Plain sequence, but doesn't show a full performance, cutting away from it midway, then repeating the instrumental break and truncating the ending.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away - An acoustic number by Lennon, strongly influenced by Bob Dylan.  At times, it even sounds as if John is trying to sing like Dylan.  A beautiful piece, quite unlike anything the Beatles had done up to this point.  It also marks the first time that they asked producer George Martin to bring in a session musician to help them complete a recording.  The final verse features a flautist (Johnnie Scott, according to Mark Lewisohn) overdubbing both tenor and alto flute parts.  I always thought Lennon should have played harmonica instead, but he chose flutes to keep the song from sounding too Dylanesque.  Pearl Jam went the harmonica route years later on their cover version for the I Am Sam soundtrack and, to me, it sounds perfect.  In the film, the boys perform this number in their communal flat, with John, Paul and George vying for the attention of the priestess Ahme, played by Eleanor Bron.

I Need You - This is only George Harrison's second composition to be recorded but, from this time on, he will write all of his own material with the Beatles.  The song is on a par with Paul's songs for the soundtrack, adequate for the purposes of the film.  The outstanding feature in the mix is George's use of the tone pedal, which he uses here in a more conventional manner than he would later in the same session on Lennon's B-side Yes It Is.  Lester also uses this song in the Salisbury Plain sequence of the movie.

Another Girl - McCartney's second soundtrack number is a fast-paced pop song, featuring Paul on lead guitar.  In Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Recording Sessions, the entry for February 15th indicates that George spent quite a while trying to get the sound that Paul wanted with the tremolo arm of his guitar.  The next day, Paul came in and simply played it himself.  It is possible that the roots of the animosity that George eventually felt for Paul could be traced to this moment.  Lester uses this song for a fun sequence on the beach in the Bahamas. 

You're Going to Lose That Girl - A great number by Lennon with strong backing vocals by Paul and George.  Overdubs include Paul on piano and Ringo on bongos.  In his book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley says that this lyric is the "inverse narrative" to She Loves You - instead of rejoicing in a friend's love, the singer threatens to steal her away.  This is one of those Lennon-McCartney compositions that is so good that any other group could have released it as a single and had a guaranteed hit.  Lester places this early in the film as a recording session in the studio.

Ticket to Ride - The hit song from the spring, already covered in an earlier blog.  Martin sticks with his usual strategy by bookending the album side with the two singles.

These seven songs make up the Beatles' entire contribution to the American LP Help!  Capitol has taken a lot of heat over the years for their soundtrack, but it is truly not very different from the United Artists album A Hard Day's Night.  UA rounded out the eight Beatles tracks on that record with four instrumentals by George Martin.  Capitol put five tracks by Ken Thorne on this album, plus a pseudo-James Bond intro before the title song.  And it is not an exaggeration to state that one aspect of Thorne's work would soon have an impact on the consciousness of Western youth culture...

The fictional cult of Kaili from somewhere in the mysterious East was the invention of screenwriter Marc Behm.  Lester naturally made sure that all departments supported that fictional creation in some concrete way, from the sets to the costumes to the music.  Thorne's idea was to add unfamiliar Eastern sounds to his orchestrations and so, he employed Indian musicians for some of his tracks, including a version of A Hard Day's Night played in an Indian restaurant sequence.  When it came time to shoot that scene, George Harrison was fascinated by the Indian instruments being employed on the set, particularly the sitar.  

The rest, of course, is history.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Help! b/w I'm Down

Shea Stadium - August 15th, 1965
 
An exclamation point made all the difference.

As was the case with A Hard Day's Night, the Fab Four's second movie went into production without a title.  The original script was merely called Beatles Two.  Ringo suggested Eight Arms to Hold You because of the statue of the goddess Kaili, and this was actually used as the working title for a while.  When the producers came up with the title Help, they were told they could not use it because another project in development already had the rights to that title.  According to director Richard Lester, it was only after adding the exclamation point that the rights were secured, and John and Paul were once again ordered to come up with a title song.  And, as before, it was John who came in with the goods.

Although he had to write a composition with a predetermined title, Lennon somehow managed to write a deeply personal song.  He picked up the same theme he had tackled in I'm a Loser several months earlier.  If anything, as the group was in the midst of shooting this silly James Bond parody, John was feeling even more trapped by his fame as a Beatle.  Years later, he would describe this time as his "fat Elvis" period (even though Elvis himself hadn't reached that point yet in 1965).  The lyrics reveal his vulnerability beneath his alternating happy-go-lucky and smart-ass exteriors.

There are no electronic tricks to catch the ear this time, just an immediate vocal attack at a frantic pace by John, Paul and George.  Once they settle into the verses, they employ an ingenious device that has the backing vocals by Paul and George anticipating every line sung by John, then linking up with him to finish alternating lines.  There is also no instrumental break here as in other recent singles.  Instead, most of the band drops out and John repeats the first verse solo, with the others slowly joining back in both vocally and instrumentally until they recapture the original momentum.  John later complained that his message was lost because they had to speed up the song for the purposes of the film, but the tempo actually drives home the sense of being caught up in forces beyond one's control - a true feeling of helplessness.

Despite the fact that it was late in the process, Lester actually shot a black and white sequence of the Beatles performing the song in a stage setting.  When we first see it, we do not realize that the film is being projected in the temple of Kaili until brightly-colored darts begin hitting the screen and the high priest, played by the wonderful Leo McKern, exclaims, "Shocking!"

The American single version is a case of one mix being unlike all others.  It seems to be a completely different lead vocal by John, with examples being "And now these days are gone..." instead of "But now these days are gone..." and different phrasing of the final line of the first verse.  This version later appeared on the American LP Rarities in 1980.

I'm Down, the B-side of the single, is a screaming rocker by McCartney.  It was recorded during sessions for the non-soundtrack songs for the album in mid-June of 1965.  Paul was clearly attempting to write a song in the same vein as the Little Richard numbers he had been performing for years, and he succeeded in a big way.  The band tears into this song as if it were an old, familiar part of their repertoire.  Paul's raucous lead vocal is supported by certifiably goofy backup vocals by John and George.  And the instrumental breaks by George on guitar and John on Hammond organ are equally wacky.

The Beatles added both of these songs to their live set.  In fact, the first live performance of Help! is on Anthology 2 from Blackpool Night Out, featuring John stumbling on the lyrics.  For a real treat, go to YouTube and find the performance of I'm Down from the Shea Stadium concert.  The boys are having themselves an absolute blast, with John playing the organ with his elbows at one point.

Naturally, the song Help! appeared as both a single and the lead track of the differing soundtrack albums in both the UK and the US.  I'm Down was a true rarity in both countries, appearing only as this B-side during the group's career.  It did not surface again until the compilation album Rock and Roll Music in 1976.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ticket to Ride b/w Yes It Is

Another year, another movie, another batch of soundtrack songs to be recorded.  The first, on February 15th, 1965 was Ticket to Ride.

Lennon wrote this finely-crafted pop number, which features a few distinctive touches as recorded by the Beatles.  The first is the towering guitar riff, kicking off yet another single with an ear-catching hook.  The second is the lopsided drum pattern played by Ringo, but suggested by Paul.  It is not until the first bridge that the drums shift into standard 4/4 time.  Yet another novelty is that Paul plays lead guitar in addition to bass and, of course, adds his usual superb high harmonies to John's lead vocal.

In one of his final interviews for Playboy in 1980, Lennon called Ticket to Ride "one of the earliest heavy metal records made."  I would call that quite a stretch, but it is interesting to note that the verses are only one chord almost all the way through, creating something of a droning effect - and this slightly in advance of their awareness of, and influence by, Indian music. 

Director Richard Lester used this song for the most memorable musical sequence in the film, even better than the Can't Buy Me Love sequence in A Hard Days' Night.  And yet, today, it would be unthinkable to take the biggest act in the world (which the Beatles unquestionably were at the time), bring them to the Austrian Alps and put them on a ski slope (only Ringo had ever even been on skis before) and have them cavort in front of the cameras, risking life and limb.  

Although Lennon wrote Yes It Is for consideration for the soundtrack, it was quickly relegated to the B-side of this single.  That is not to say that it is in any way a lesser song, as we have already looked at several high-quality B-sides.  It simply did not fit the mood of any of the scenes as conceived by Lester.

Yes It Is is a composition in the same vein as This Boy.  John, Paul and George sing the verses in three-part harmony, then a double-tracked John sings the soaring bridge.  This lovely piece is enhanced by a new toy that George Harrison began using in the studio at this session.  Known at the time as a tone pedal, the device soon became known to all guitarists as the wah-wah pedal.  But while most guitarists would use the wah-wah in a spectacular fashion, George wisely elected to use it in a restrained and subtle way on this delicate track.  Not knowing exactly how the sound was being produced at the time, I came to believe that he was drawing a bow across his guitar's strings, and I still think that is a fairly accurate description of how it sounds.

The single was released in April of 1965, well in advance of the movie.  The song Ticket to Ride also appeared on the differing versions of the Help! LP in both the UK and the US.  Yes It Is was only released as a B-side in the UK, but in the US it also appeared on the compilation album Beatles VI.

The Beatles added Ticket to Ride to their live set.  You can hear performances of it on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl and on Anthology 2.  On Live at the BBC, they perform the song on The Beatles Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride, which turned out to be their final appearance on a BBC radio program. 

If you have an early pressing of the original single, you have a real collector's item in your possession.  The caption on the A-side indicated that Ticket to Ride was "From the United Artists screenplay Eight Arms to Hold You."

Monday, November 14, 2011

BEATLES FOR SALE - side two

Eight Days a Week - The first time they flipped over the album, many British fans may have thought there was something wrong with the volume control on their record player.  Adding yet another innovation to their already-impressive list, the Beatles' guitars actually fade in to this delightful pop song.  But, as you can hear on Anthology 1, they attempted numerous vocal intros to the song before coming up with this idea.  They also altered the way they sang the word "week," opting to go down a few notes at the end of the line rather than up.  Composed by McCartney, this is the first of four Lennon-McCartney duets on side two.  And though the song is Paul's, it is John's voice that is dominant in the mix.  Like No Reply and I'm a Loser, this song was under consideration to be a single until John came up with I Feel Fine.

And, in fact, Capitol Records in the US held this recording back for a few months and did release it as a single in February of 1965.  It became the first single created by the American company to go to number one.

Words of Love - The earliest existing recording of the group dates from 1958, when they were still known as the Quarrymen.  John, Paul, George, John Lowe on piano and Colin Hanton on drums pooled their money and went to a local house in Liverpool where you could record two songs and walk out with a 78rpm disc.  The song they chose for the A-side was That'll Be the Day by Buddy Holly, with John singing lead and Paul harmonizing.  Six years later, they made their one and only official recording of a Buddy Holly tune.  John and Paul sing this as a duet, John singing about as low as he possibly can in his vocal register.  This is pure rockabilly and features George playing an incredibly twangy guitar part.  According to the liner notes, instead of the drums, Ringo plays a packing case!

Honey Don't - For the second time in a row, Ringo sings a Carl Perkins tune for his vocal spotlight.  George turns in another fine rockabilly guitar performance, with Ringo urging him on before each break - "Aw, rock on, George, for Ringo one time."  This material suits Ringo so well that it seems hard to imagine that John used to sing this number in their live set, but you can actually hear him do it on Live at the BBC.  And, as blasphemous as it may seem, I have to admit that I prefer Ringo's version over John's.

Every Little Thing - The third Lennon/McCartney duet on side two is this lesser known but wonderful little pop number which has a bit of mystery about it.  Whenever John or Paul sat down over the years to talk with interviewers about who wrote what, neither one of them laid a real claim to this song.  And when I listen to it, I lean first one way, then the other, because it contains elements of each songwriter.  Ultimately, I give up and simply enjoy it for what it is.  Paul adds a bit of piano to the track, but the biggest delight is Ringo on timpani.

I Don't Want to Spoil the Party - The final duet is a composition by Lennon with a strong country flavor to it.  George's guitar sounds as twangy as it did on Words of Love earlier on this side.  John and Paul alternate high and low harmonies between the verses and the bridge, creating a nice variety to their vocal blend.  And George even joins Paul for brief backing vocals as John sings one solo line near the end of each verse.

Capitol Records chose this song to be the B-side of Eight Days a Week in the US.

What You're Doing - Another lesser known gem is this number by McCartney.  For starters, it opens with a true rarity - four bars of just Ringo setting the beat.  Then the band enters with George playing a repeating riff that is simpler but equally as catchy as the one in I Feel Fine.  The bridge features Paul seizing the opportunity to absolutely soar vocally - a beautiful moment.  George turns in a fine guitar break, but underneath his line George Martin adds an oddly out-of-place piano part which Tim Riley terms "razzmatazz."  At the end of the song, Ringo goes solo again for a few bars before Paul adds a brief bass solo and the band reenters for the fade out.

Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby - Martin closes out the side with this rousing Carl Perkins number, which also happens to be George Harrison's one and only lead vocal on the album.  This is another one-take performance by the band, since the song had been a staple of their live act for years.  For some reason, there is a huge amount of echo put on George's vocal, but it doesn't much matter because the real focus here is on his rockabilly guitar chops.  He has been putting them on display for most of the album, and this song gives him one last stab at paying his respects to one of his idols.

A remarkable performance of this number appears on Anthology 2 from the historic concert at Shea Stadium in 1965.  The guitar sound is much heavier due to the greater-than-normal amplification system which still managed to be ineffective in the face of 55,000 screaming fans who were drowning out the jets taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport.  Still, George and the rest of the Beatles somehow manage to deliver a decent rendition under such unprecedented conditions.

In the US, the two Carl Perkins cover versions appeared on the album Beatles '65.  The remaining songs were all featured on the compilation album Beatles VI released in June of 1965.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

BEATLES FOR SALE - side one

Most critics and fans regard this album as one of the low points in the career of the Beatles.  I respectfully disagree.  When you consider that almost every track here is represented thirty years later on Live at the BBC and/or the Anthology - projects on which Paul, George and Ringo were consulted - then you have to believe that the boys themselves thought highly of the material from this period.

It is true that Lennon and McCartney were not able to come up with an entire album's worth of new compositions, so they returned to the format of the first two albums - eight originals and six covers.  This time, the songs they choose to cover are mostly rockabilly numbers, and those choices influence the overall feel of the album.

The seven sessions for this album and the I Feel Fine/She's a Woman single took place between August 11th and October 26th, 1964.  They were sandwiched around a North American tour and their first tour of England in almost a year.

No Reply - Producer George Martin had already changed the way he normally ended an album by placing the moody I'll Be Back at the end of A Hard Day's Night.  Now, he opens a Beatles album for the one and only time with a stark, dramatic number.  Lennon said he had the great doo-wop song Silhouettes by the Rays in mind when he composed this song, but this is a darker treatment of the same subject.  His double-tracked voice kicks off the song filled with the pain of betrayal.  The guitars are acoustic and a piano played by Martin adds an extra punch as needed.  Paul also occasionally adds a bit of high vocal harmony.  It is remarkable that the tone is so dark once you listen to the two lighthearted takes that are available on Anthology 1 where they are still working out the shape of the song.  It was such a bold way to start the album that this song was actually under consideration for a single until John came up with I Feel Fine.

I'm a Loser - Most of the material that John Lennon wrote in his solo career was of a personal and revealing nature.  This was the first time as a member of the Beatles that he either consciously or subconsciously wrote in such a style.  He later said that he was already feeling trapped in his persona as one of the four lovable moptops, and this song is one of the first manifestations of that frustration.  But by virtue of his placing these lyrics in the framework of a bouncy rockabilly number, we missed the message at the time.  Several of the Beatles' usual adornments add to the light touch, including Paul's high harmonies and his wonderful walking bass line during the refrain, John's Dylanesque harmonica and George's countrified guitar work, played on his new Gretsch Tennessean.  This song was also considered as a possible single release.

Baby's in Black - This odd, country-flavored number is the first full Lennon-McCartney collaboration since I Want to Hold Your Hand.  It was the first to be recorded at these sessions and pretty much set the tone for the work in general.  According to Mark Lewisohn, George Harrison was bending the notes at the top of the song so much that Martin was inclined to ask, "You want the beginning like that, do you?"  Lennon was proud of the fact that the song was written in waltz time (he had even tried to record I'll Be Back in 3/4 time as you can hear on Anthology 1), probably believing that most other rock and roll groups would not even have attempted what he felt was such a sophisticated style.  Amazingly, they added this song to their live set.  On the Real Love EP, released after Anthology 2 in 1996, you can hear the group perform this number at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965, with John touting the fact that it is a waltz in his zany intro.

Rock and Roll Music - On Live at the BBC the Beatles tackle several Chuck Berry numbers.  They obviously had great respect for this rock and roll icon, yet they only recorded two of his songs officially.  George had done the honors on Roll Over Beethoven - now, it was John's turn.  But, although they threw themselves into this recording, it simply does not stand up as one of their greatest cover versions.  Perhaps the reason is that in most of their other covers, they managed to outdo the original, but it is awfully hard to outdo Chuck Berry.  And they only did one take of the number (although liner notes indicate that John, Paul and Martin all played the same piano, which would have been done as an overdub) as part of an extremely productive session on October 18th, during which they worked on eight different songs.  On Anthology 2, you can hear them do a ragged version of this number (even omitting one of the verses) in Japan in 1966.

I'll Follow the Sun - McCartney claimed that this was one of the first songs he ever composed, but he had not offered it to the Beatles before this because he thought it wasn't strong enough to merit recording.  This is a curious claim for such a fine ballad.  This time, John adds the harmonies and George plays a guitar solo which simply and beautifully mirrors the melody.  Liner notes credit Ringo with playing the bongos.

Mr. Moonlight - This is easily one of the most hated songs in the entire Beatles catalog by fans and critics alike, but it highlights the group's broad musical knowledge.  This was an obscure B-side by an even more obscure group known as Dr. Feelgood and the Interns.  Yet Lennon sings it as if it were the greatest song ever written.  An early take on Anthology 1 features a wacky guitar solo by George, but when they remade it months later, Paul plays an even wackier solo on Hammond organ, giving the song a real lounge lizard feel to it.  Ringo definitely plays bongos on this number and George adds a different-sounding thump on an African drum.

The above six songs appeared in the exact same order as side one of the American album Beatles '65, making it the most faithful-to-the-original album side released by Capitol in the first half of the Beatles' career.

Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey - George Martin continues his strategy of closing side one with a rousing number by choosing this medley by Little Richard.  The first half was composed by the Brill Building team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the second half by Little Richard himself.  While Paul does a pleasant enough job on the first half, it isn't until after George's guitar solo that the song really takes off.  Challenged by John and George's wild backing vocals, Paul delivers a feverish performance.  With Martin on piano, this was yet another one-take recording by the group, although Anthology 2 offers a not-quite-as-good second take.

In the US, this number opens the compilation album Beatles VI.  Little Richard was upset at the time because the label listed the song as Kansas City and only credited Lieber and Stoller, so he took legal action.  This greatly amused Lieber and Stoller since Little Richard had altered their song without their permission when he created the medley, yet they had never taken any action against him.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I Feel Fine b/w She's a Woman


On November 27th (the 23rd here in the US), a strange sound emitted from our radios.  A single bass note hangs in the air for a moment before an answering electronic wail which is followed in turn by an amazing guitar riff.  The Beatles repeat an aural trick that film director Richard Lester had demanded of them at the top of A Hard Day's Night - something striking that commands the listeners' attention.  John Lennon was especially proud of the feedback on I Feel Fine, claiming that this was the first deliberate instance of it on any pop record.  "Before Hendrix, before the Who, before anybody," as he told Playboy in one of his last interviews.

I Feel Fine is a great pop song not because of the almost-dismissible lyric, but once again, because of the musical ingenuity which surrounds it.  Once George gets that riff going (and it carries through pretty much the entire song), Ringo enters playing a surprising Latin beat.  John's double-tracked lead vocal is backed up beautifully by Paul and George.  These are the type of harmonies that will come to be known as "Beatlesque."  George's guitar solo has a slightly country flavor to it, which is to be expected considering the work they were currently doing on their upcoming album.  

This song is immediately added to their live set, although getting that feedback for the intro was sometimes difficult to accomplish.  You can hear them attempt it on both Live at the BBC and on Anthology 2 from an appearance on Blackpool Night Out.

For the B-side, McCartney writes and sings a rhythm and blues number called She's a Woman.  It starts out with sharp, clipped chords on John's rhythm guitar, and it is not until the rest of the band enters that we realize he has been playing on the upbeat.  There is a lot of space in this sound with only bass, rhythm guitar, drums and Ringo on chocalho.  Paul sings so high in his register that I did not even recognize this as being the Beatles when I first heard it on the radio - I thought for sure that it was a female voice.  For the second verse, Paul adds a simple piano line to echo his melody, and his voice is double-tracked only for the very brief bridge.  George's guitar solo on this number has even more of a country feel to it than the one he played on the A-side.

The sound was so spare that Capitol Records in America altered it, adding a considerable amount of echo to John's guitar in particular.  This is the type of thing they would do numerous times early in the group's career and not even bother to hide the fact, printing a credit on album covers which read, "Produced in England by George Martin and in the USA with the assistance of Dave Dexter, Jr."

This number was also added to the band's live set.  You can find versions of it on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, Live at the BBC and on Anthology 2 from a 1966 concert in Japan.

I also have in my possession a bootleg which was sent to me from the original session of She's a Woman.  Bootlegs from the first half of the group's career are relatively rare, and this one is a real find.  The master was take six, but they did attempt one more take.  Only the basic instruments are heard - John on rhythm guitar, Paul on bass and vocal and Ringo on drums.  All other sounds would have been overdubbed onto take six.  Take seven is clearly not as good, but the fun starts where the fadeout would be.  The Beatles were not known as a band that would typically jam, but here, John, Paul and Ringo go wild for another three minutes, bending notes, screeching and uncharacteristically going off the rails until it all falls apart, at which point Ringo says, "Got a song and an instrumental there."

I Feel Fine was a worldwide number one.  In the US, She's a Woman got just about the same amount of airplay and did extremely well, reaching as high as number four on the Billboard chart.  Capitol also put both of these songs on the album Beatles '65.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT - side two

After filming was completed, the Beatles took a brief holiday, then returned to Abbey Road studios on June 1st and 2nd, 1964 to record a new batch of songs which would fill out both the non-soundtrack side of the album and the Long Tall Sally EP.

Any Time at All - A sharp drum shot by Ringo is followed by John barking out the song title, the band's full entrance and a high echo of the title by Paul before John resolves the refrain.  The verses are John double-tracked.  In the middle of each verse one of his voices drops out and the second finishes the line as the first re-enters to begin an overlapping line, then is rejoined by the second.  It is a simple, but clever device, and it marks one of the first times that they will use a studio trick to accomplish something that they could not duplicate live.  For the instrumental break, George (on guitar) and Paul (on piano) play melodies which mirror each other and intersect in the middle.  All in all, a fine mid-tempo piece by Lennon with nice contributions from the whole band.

I'll Cry Instead - On the same day that they recorded the Carl Perkins number Matchbox, Lennon comes up with a rockabilly tune of his own.  George, already warmed up in the style earlier in the day, turns in some fine guitar work.  All sources indicate that John and Paul sing this as a duet, but it has always sounded to me like John's voice double-tracked.

In interviews over the years, Lennon always said that he wrote this song for the film, but director Richard Lester replaced it with Can't Buy Me Love.  However, if Mark Lewisohn's research is correct and the song was recorded on June 1st after filming was complete, then John's memory is faulty.  Then again, why would producer George Martin include this recording with the other soundtrack songs that he sent to both United Artists and Capitol Records on June 9th if he knew that it was not going to be used in the film?

There is also the matter of the song's length.  Not only were there usually different mixes for mono and stereo, but there were often different mixes for the US and the UK.  In this instance, the American version has a repeat of the first verse, making it twenty seconds longer than the British version.  And Lewisohn indicates that the song was recorded in two parts - Section A and Section B - which were later edited together but, for the life of me, I've never been able to hear where the edit is.  Quite a few mysteries for such a brisk, little number.

Capitol Records released I'll Cry Instead as a US single, mistakenly printing on the label that it was "From the United Artists picture A Hard Day's Night."  It peaked at number twenty-five.

At this point, the fine McCartney composition Things We Said Today breaks up what is otherwise an all-Lennon album side.  I have already covered this song as the B-side to A Hard Day's Night.

When I Get Home - The "Whoa oh oh I"s in the refrain of this number are not the prettiest harmonies that the Beatles ever sang, but the urgency in them is certainly apparent.  Lennon once again uses his rhythm guitar as well as his voice to drive a song along as if his life depended on it.  When he gets to the bridge, he has built up so much momentum that he can simply let the song bounce along for a bit before he attacks the next verse and literally takes it home.

The above four recordings only appeared in the US on the Capitol album Something New.

Next up is You Can't Do That, which I examined as the B-side to Can't Buy Me Love.

I'll Be Back - The album closes with this wonderfully moody piece - quite a contrast to the screaming cover versions that closed the first two albums.  John's double-tracked voice sings plaintively, sometimes with Paul, sometimes alone, about a shattered love affair.  Except for the bass, the guitars are acoustic, with George once again doing some lovely work.  In his book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley points out that as the song fades out, the key keeps changing from major to minor and back again.  Indeed, he writes extensively about how this is a motif for the entire album and how this is a great step forward in the maturity of both John and Paul's songwriting.

In the US, Capitol held this song back for months, finally releasing it on the album Beatles '65.

You may have noticed that there are only six instead of the usual seven songs on side two.  The group was to record one final song on June 3rd, but Ringo was taken ill with tonsillitis and pharyngitis that morning.  Instead of recording, John, Paul and George spent the afternoon rehearsing with session drummer Jimmy Nicol, who was called in to replace Ringo for the start of their imminent world tour.  That evening, the three Beatles did record a few demos of unfinished songs including John's No Reply, which would lead off the next album and George Harrison's second composition You Know What to Do, a pleasant effort which was promptly forgotten for thirty years until the tape was discovered during research for the Anthology.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT - side one

Promotional film for A Hard Days' Night
A Hard Day's Night is not generally considered to be one of the Beatles' masterpieces like Rubber Soul, Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, but I firmly believe it deserves consideration.  The boys are absolute masters of their craft by now, from songwriting to finished recording.  And not only is this the first album with no cover songs, it is the only one to be made up solely of Lennon-McCartney compositions (a year later, Harrison would begin writing his own material full-time).  And while the album is clearly dominated by Lennon, each of McCartney's three songs is a true gem.

The bulk of the soundtrack songs were recorded in four sessions between February 25th and March 1st, 1964.  John and Paul had written these compositions while in Paris, even requesting that a piano be moved into their suite at the George V to assist them in their work.  In laying out the album, producer George Martin naturally put all of these songs on side one.  The proceedings are kicked off by the title song, which I covered in my last entry, only I neglected to mention that it was recorded on April 16th.

I Should Have Known Better - It has been a while since we have heard John's harmonica, but here it is opening this uptempo Lennon number.  John sings this one alone, his voice double-tracked except for the final bridge.  This is the type of perfectly-crafted pop song that he and Paul could now write in their sleep, full of energy and high spirits matched in performance by each member of the band.  It is used twice in the film, first in the card-playing sequence on the train and again in the concert.

If I Fell - This magnificent ballad by John starts off with him singing a solo intro, then Paul joins in for the rest of the song.  Mark Lewisohn says that they requested only one microphone so they could sing side by side.  What they deliver here is perhaps the finest duet of their career.  It is easily the best example of what William Mann referred to in his Times article the previous year when he wrote, "one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody..."  Their vocal parts interweave so effortlessly that, as Tim Riley states, "both lines are so lyrical it's hard to say just which one is the 'melody.'"  And the musical ingenuity on display is matched by the beauty of the heartfelt lyrics.

Most of the soundtrack songs also appeared as singles in the US.  If I Fell was the B-side to Paul's ballad And I Love Her.

I'm Happy Just to Dance with You - For the second (and final) time, John writes a song for George.  Not only that, he also absolutely drives this number with his tireless rhythm guitar.  This pleasant, but lightweight piece also features strong backing vocals from John and Paul.  It is only used once in the film, rehearsed onstage before the TV cameras.

In the US, this was also the B-side to I'll Cry Instead, a non-soundtrack song (Or was it?  More on that next time).

And I Love Her - It has taken this long to get to a song by McCartney, but it was worth the wait to arrive at one of his minor classics.  The lyrics are pretty simplistic, but they are redeemed by the music and the performance.  This was, however, one of the first times that the Beatles had trouble finding just the right arrangement for a number, and it took three separate attempts over three days before they got it right.  On Anthology 1, you can hear that on day one, Ringo was playing drums, George was picking his electric guitar and Paul had yet to write the bridge.  By the time they record the master, Ringo is playing bongos, George is playing acoustic guitar (and turning in a performance as good as the one he did on Till There Was You), and Paul has completed the composition beautifully. 

As an A-side in the US, this song peaked at number twelve.  Paired with If I Fell, the two ballads made a wonderful single.

Tell Me Why - The only soundtrack song to not be a US single is Lennon's attempt to write a girl group number, a style which the Beatles had already recorded several times.  The refrain is John, Paul and George doing their best three-part harmony, then shifting to call-and-response for the verses.  This high-powered number is used to open the concert sequence in the film.

George Martin smartly places the already-familiar Can't Buy Me Love, which director Richard Lester had revived for the movie, at the end of side one, neatly framing the new songs between the two monster hits.

In the US, all of these songs, plus I'll Cry Instead (incorrectly listed as I Cry Instead) appeared on the United Artists soundtrack album, which was fleshed out by four George Martin instrumentals.  Four of the new soundtrack numbers also appeared on the Capitol album Something New.  I Should Have Known Better did not appear on a Capitol album until the 1970 compilation Hey Jude. 
 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Hard Day's Night b/w Things We Said Today

The story goes that, after a particularly long day of filming, Ringo was heard to say, "That was a hard day's night."  The phrase had also been used by John Lennon in his book In His Own Write.  The producer from United Artists, Walter Shenson, and his director, Richard Lester, knew that they finally had their title.  All they needed now was a song with the same title, so they told John and Paul to go write it.  The ever-competitive songwriters went their separate ways and, the next day, John came in with the goods.

Since they were about halfway through the shooting schedule, Richard Lester knew that there would not be a scene where we would see the Beatles actually performing the new song, but he knew that it would play underneath the opening credits sequence, which featured the boys running through a train station to escape a mob of fans.  He told them that it had to have a striking beginning - something that would catch the listeners' ears right at the top.  And so it was that George Harrison came up with the chord which guitarists still argue over to this day.  According to Tim Riley, the chord is a G7 with an added 9th and a suspended 4th.  But to really get the same effect, it must be played as George played it - on a 12-string guitar.

John's double-tracked voice takes us through the bulk of the verses until Paul harmonizes with him near the end.  When they get to the bridge, it is suddenly Paul's double-tracked voice taking over.  Lennon later admitted that he wrote the song so quickly that he didn't realize the bridge was too high for him until they began recording.  The end result makes the number seem like much more of a group effort, which is perfectly in keeping with the image that the Beatles always projected early in their career.

George's guitar break is the trickiest piece he has played yet, but he pulls it off with aplomb.  George Martin doubles it on piano.  The solo proved incredibly difficult to duplicate live, so much so that on Live at the BBC you can hear them actually "drop in" the record for that section when they perform it.

For the B-side, one of the non-soundtrack songs was chosen, McCartney's Things We Said Today.  This mid-tempo number shows a nice maturity in Paul's songwriting ability.  The lyric is nostalgic, looking both forward and back over the course of a relationship.

A sharp acoustic guitar sets the mood immediately, followed by the first hushed verse.  The Beatles have already used dynamics several times in their recordings, but never more effectively than here.  In the bridge, the band cuts loose as Paul sings joyfully about being in love, then they pull back as they return to the verses.  They added this song to their live set, where the contrast between the verses and the bridge became even more apparent.  If you can find a copy of the much-maligned The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl album from 1977, you can hear it for yourself.

In the UK, the single and the album were released simultaneously on July 10th, 1964.  Five days later, they both hit number one.

In the US, the title song had already appeared on the United Artists soundtrack album on June 26th.  The single was released by Capitol on June 13th but, for the second time, the label could not resist tinkering with the B-side.  They replaced the reflective Things We Said Today with an uptempo song from the soundtrack, I Should Have Known Better.  Things We Said Today only appeared as a track on the album Something New, released on July 20th.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Long Tall Sally

The boys with Little Richard
The EP was a curious format.  It was the same size as a single, but it contained two tracks per side.  Parlophone Records issued twelve EPs by the Beatles during the first half of the group's career, usually containing previously released material - except in this instance.  The sessions that had produced the songs for A Hard Day's Night had been especially productive.  The Beatles had managed to record more than enough numbers for a full album and so, it was decided that an EP of all-new tracks could be released in advance of the soundtrack.

Long Tall Sally - The Beatles had played on the same bill as Little Richard, one of their rock and roll heroes, on more than one occasion in 1962.  Paul had already been singing Little Richard songs for years, but he still took the opportunity to get some vocal coaching from the master.  By the time they get around to recording this number, Paul has it down to a science.  As they had done with Twist and Shout, the Beatles and producer George Martin (on piano) are able to capture this performance in only one take, live in the studio.  Paul's vocal attack is electric, setting a frantic pace that dares the band to keep up.  The excitement builds even higher in George's second guitar break as the band climbs up together with uncanny precision.  And as Paul screams towards the finish line, Ringo lets loose with a flurry on his drum kit until the whole thing screeches to a halt.  Another breathless two-minute performance.

I Call Your Name - By the middle of 1963, the songwriting wares of Lennon and McCartney were already in demand.  This song by Lennon was given at that time to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, another Liverpool band under Brian Epstein's management.  Now, John decided that the Beatles should record it, as well.  As with You Can't Do That, the first sound we hear is George's 12-string Rickenbacker.  John sings the title line solo, then is double-tracked for the rest of the song.  The instrumental break is quite peculiar, and it is years before Lennon states in an interview that it is the Beatles attempting ska.  If this is true, it is astonishing.  In 1964, ska was hardly known outside of Kingston, Jamaica.  How the Beatles could even have been aware of it is puzzling, unless they heard it in Miami on their first American visit.

The above two numbers were recorded on March 1st, 1964, during the sessions that yielded the songs for the film soundtrack.  A month later, Capitol Records was allowed to release them on The Beatles' Second Album, marking the first of several times that songs would be debuted in the US market.

Slow Down - Larry Williams is not exactly a household name in the pantheon of rock and rollers, but the sailors of Liverpool must have brought plenty of his records back to the Beatles' hometown, because John Lennon was a big fan of the American.  The group would wind up recording three of his compositions in less than a year's time.  This one is a basic, driving rocker which they had been performing for years.  It is just as much of a screamer for John as Long Tall Sally is for Paul, and gives us some of the longest instrumental stretches that they have played to date.  George Martin once again adds piano to the mix, overdubbing it a few days after the group session.

Matchbox - Carl Perkins, on the other hand, is one of the seminal rock and rollers.  He wrote and recorded Blue Suede Shoes before Elvis turned it into a monster hit.  To a man, the Beatles loved Perkins and his rockabilly style, but none of them more than Ringo.  His first two turns at the microphone had been face-paced rockers, but now, the drummer finds his niche.  Perkins was actually in the studio to witness this recording, which must have been a bit nerve-wracking for the boys, but they turned in a fine performance nonetheless.  George loved playing in this style, and he would get to do much more of it before year's end.  Martin plays piano yet again, live this time.

These last two items were recorded on June 1st, 1964, during sessions for the non-soundtrack side of the album.  Capitol Records added them to the album Something New in July.  A month later, they released them as a single, with Slow Down reaching number twenty-five and Matchbox peaking at number seventeen.  Matchbox was chosen to be the A-side.  Why?  Because the most popular Beatle in America was Ringo, of course.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Can't Buy Me Love b/w You Can't Do That

First Can't Buy Me Love sequence in A Hard Day's Night
Can't Buy Me Love - In Paris on January 29th, 1964, after recording the two German language songs, the Beatles still had time left at the end of the session, so they set about recording this new composition by Paul McCartney which would turn out to be their next single.  This would be the only time that all four members of the group would make any official recordings outside of England during their career.

The work on this song marks the first time that you can hear substantial changes from take to take until they arrive at the finished product.  And yet the song was complete in only four takes - that was how quickly they could accommodate new ideas.  Initially, Paul had written the song with the verse at the top, but producer George Martin suggested they open with the chorus to hook the listener.  On Anthology 1, you can hear take two, which features John and George singing backing vocals.  It was soon decided that these were unnecessary.  Back at Abbey Road Studios on February 25th, Paul's vocal was double-tracked and George's guitar solo was overdubbed (you can hear an earlier solo bleeding through in the background) and the song was ready for release.

This brisk, pop number was not intended for the upcoming movie, but director Richard Lester liked it so much that he used it not once, but twice in the film.  We first hear it in the glorious scene where the boys escape the TV studio and romp on a field with utter abandon.  Lester is actually inventing the music video right here twenty years before MTV.  The song is used again in the sequence where they rescue Ringo from the police station and rush back for the TV concert.

You Can't Do That - The first song to be recorded for the soundtrack was this B-side by Lennon.  Right at the top we hear something new - George's 12-string Rickenbacker which he had just purchased in the US.  John then launches into one of his earliest jealous guy compositions, singing with vengeful glee.  The guitar solo is another first with Lennon taking it himself, playing sharp, jabbing chords and bending notes as if they will help him burn off the steam he has built up in the lyrics.  And to top it all off, Paul plays cowbell!

Although they shot a performance of this song in the TV concert sequence, it was edited out of the film to keep things moving.  It is possible to find a VHS copy of the film which features this performance as an extra, with narration by Phil Collins who was one of the few young boys actually in the theater audience when it was filmed.

In addition to being a number one single in the UK, both of these songs also appeared a few months later on the album A Hard Day's Night.

By the time this single came out in the US, the market was absolutely flooded with material by the Beatles.  Both VeeJay and Swan Records had repackaged and rereleased almost every track to which they had the rights.  When Can't Buy Me Love hit number one on April 4th, 1964, the Beatles set an astonishing record - not only did they occupy the top five positions on the chart, they also had seven more songs in the Hot 100, as well as the number one and number two albums.  One week later, they added two more songs in the Hot 100, giving them an unprecedented domination of the charts that will probably never be equaled, let alone broken.

You Can't Do That appeared about a month after the single release on The Beatles' Second Album.  Can't Buy Me Love was included on the United Artists soundtrack album A Hard Day's Night.  Strangely, it did not appear on a Capitol album until the 1970 compilation Hey Jude.