Follow by Email

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.