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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hey Jude b/w Revolution

In my presentation The Studio Years: 1967-1970, I speak at length about both sides of this superb single.  In order to tell the story properly, I begin with the B-side.

Revolution - The Beatles began recording this Lennon composition on May 30th, 1968.  It was not intended for the sprawling double album which would consume the next five months of studio time - rather, John wanted it to be released as the A-side of their new single.  Paul and George, however, were still mindful of the policy established by the group's late manager, Brian Epstein, to not make any political statement, even one that cautions restraint on the part of the radical left, as the lyrics of this song do.  They also argued that the song was too slow and, therefore, not single material.  This caused John to shelve this first recording (soon to be known as Revolution 1), and consider a remake of a faster, grittier version of the song.

Work on the remake was begun on July 9th.  The tempo is not really much faster, but the distorted guitars and the growling vocal by John make it one of the hardest-rocking numbers ever recorded by the Beatles.  John also added a second vocal part and manually faded it in and out of the mix for effect.  Leaving nothing to chance, he brought in keyboard session man extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins to play electric piano on the track.  Even though George complained that the guitars were too distorted on the new version, there was no denying that this recording was worthy of an A-side, until Paul walked in with a new composition...

Hey Jude - This magnificent anthem began as a song of encouragement by Paul for young Julian Lennon, who was caught in the middle of the divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia.  Like most great songs, it moved beyond the specific to the universal.  An immediate indication of this came when Paul first sang the song for John, and Lennon thought that the song was written for him - that the line "go out and get her" was a reference to Yoko.  What was clear to John was that Hey Jude would have to be the A-side of the single.

The Beatles spent two days at Abbey Road laying down 23 takes and some overdubs before moving to Trident Studios on July 31st to begin a remake using eight-track technology for the very first time.  The recording starts off simply with just Paul singing and playing piano.  For the second verse, a tambourine and John's acoustic guitar join in, and John and George supply backing vocals.  Ringo's drums enter just before the bridge, as George's electric guitar and Paul's overdubbed bass complete the ensemble.  For half of the third verse and all of the fourth, John sings a supple harmony around Paul's lead, creating what Tim Riley ranks as their best duet since If I Fell.  Including the two bridges and running slightly over three minutes, this song is already one of the longest that Paul has written, but the incredible extended coda is longer than the main body of the song.

On August 1st, a thirty-six piece orchestra was brought in to play the four note coda countless times, and then asked to add handclaps and join in singing the "na na na" chorus.  According to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, only one refused.  On top of this four minute fadeout, Paul gives an inspired ad lib performance, letting his absolute joy in the freedom of the music carry him, as it had in the days back in Liverpool and Hamburg.

Promotional films were made for both songs at Twickenham Film Studios on September 4th, directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg.  For Revolution, John had Paul and George doing the "shoo-be-doo-wah"s, an element from the slow version.  For Hey Jude, an orchestra and fifty or so fans joined in the coda, the fans crowding around the band.  The group enjoyed this experience so much that the seeds of their next project were planted on this day.  

The single was released in late August on the new Apple label, and was a worldwide number one.  Hey Jude proved to be their biggest hit in the US, spending nine weeks in the top spot.  Revolution also charted well, peaking at number twelve on the Billboard Top 40.  In February 1970, both songs appeared on the Hey Jude compilation album in the US.   

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lady Madonna b/w The Inner Light

As 1968 began, with the failure of the Magical Mystery Tour film still fresh in their minds and their fledgling company Apple to run, the Beatles unexpectedly decided to go to India for ten weeks to study transcendental meditation.  Back in August of '67, the group had cut short a retreat in Bangor, Wales with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when they received news of manager Brian Epstein's death, but the guru had extracted a promise from them before their departure.  Thus, the trip to India.

They knew from past experience, however, that they could not afford to disappear from the record-buying public for too long a spell, so they convened at Abbey Road Studios on February 3rd for the express purpose of recording a single which could be released during their absence.  John, Paul and George each had a composition to be recorded, but after a few days of work, John was unhappy with the recording of his song Across the Universe and withdrew it from consideration, relegating it to the vault among the few other unreleased Beatles recordings.

Lady Madonna - After a year of psychedelic recordings, the Beatles return to good old rock 'n roll with this piano boogie number, and it is interesting to note that it is not Lennon leading the way - rather, it is McCartney.  The basic track was simply Paul on piano and Ringo on drums, using brushes for a change.  After overdubbing the usual instruments, as well as a second piano part and drums played with sticks, Paul added his fabulous Elvis/Fats Domino lead vocal.  Four saxophones were eventually added to the mix, but for the instrumental break, a sax solo sits alongside backing vocals by Paul, John and George in which they cupped their hands around their mouths in order to sound like horns.

The lyrics are quite astonishing.  The Beatles were not exactly feminists at this stage in their lives - far from it, in fact - yet here is Paul celebrating single motherhood.  In Tell Me Why, Tim Riley also points out the nursery rhyme aspect of the song.  The overall analogy is to The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, but we also have the "See how they run" reference to the farmer's wife from Three Blind Mice.  And, of course, the days of the week lists play right into that childlike quality.  Aretha Franklin did an excellent cover version of this for the title song of the American sitcom Grace Under Fire in the 1990s.

The Inner Light - This is Harrison's first song to make it onto a single by the Beatles.  Early in the group's career, he had had a few lead vocals on singles in the US, and other countries, no doubt, but not until 1968 did he get this one on the official catalog as released in the UK.  This is the third and final Indian number that he recorded during his time with the group.  He had been approached in late '67 to compose the soundtrack for a film called Wonderwall (and I honestly do not know of anyone who has actually seen the film), so he traveled to EMI's studios in Bombay in January '68 to enlist several Indian musicians to play the themes he had written.  They worked so quickly and efficiently that he had time left over to record a few ragas for possible future use by the Beatles. 

Back in England less than a month later, he added lyrics and a vocal line to one of these ragas and came up with this song, with the lyrics based on a version of the Tao Te Ching.  For some reason, he was quite nervous when it came time to record his vocal, but according to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Paul urged him on.  John and Paul added harmony vocals for the final line, thus making it a true Beatles recording.

When the single was released in mid-March, it went to number one in the UK, but peaked at number four in the US.  Lady Madonna later appeared on the US compilation album Hey Jude in early 1970.  The Inner Light was only available as this B-side during the group's career.  It did not appear on an album until 1979 on the UK release Rarities, and in 1980 on the US version of Rarities.

This was the last record to be issued by the group on the Parlophone label in the UK and the Capitol label in the US.  By the time of the next release in the summer of 1968, the Beatles had their own label.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour was broadcast in Britain on Boxing Day, December 26th, 1967.  It was such a failure with both the critics and the public that ABC-TV, which held the American rights, never aired it.  Paul's idea for an avant-garde film for television had been conceived well before the death of Brian Epstein, but without the manager's guidance, it quickly descended into chaos.  The Beatles set out with no script (only some rough scenarios), no director (surely they could do it themselves) and a bus full of actors who were told to simply "act."  The final nail in the coffin was that this wild, psychedelic extravaganza was shown by the BBC in glorious black and white.  But, while the TV show was a colossal debacle, the accompanying soundtrack was a runaway hit, despite the fact that much of the music was merely a pale imitation of Sgt. Pepper six months earlier.

In the UK, the soundtrack was released as a double EP, with the songs in the following order:

SIDE A

Magical Mystery Tour  - The title song is by McCartney, and the basic track was recorded on April 25th, only weeks after the completion of Sgt. Pepper.  He had only a few lines at the start, however, and asked the other Beatles to call out suggestions as they rehearsed in the studio.  The same approach was used days later when he kept four trumpeters waiting as he and producer George Martin worked out on the spot what they wanted them to play.  In spite of the haphazard method of its creation, the song works well as an opening number for the film because of its simplicity.  The trumpet fanfare at the top may not be the equivalent of George's crashing chord at the beginning of A Hard Day's Night, but it does the trick.  The low-key instrumental break allows a voice-over to set up whatever semblance of a story is to follow, and the fadeout makes for a nice segue into the action.

Your Mother Should Know - Essentially, this is only one verse written by McCartney and stretched out to an entire song.  He changes one line to create a second verse and merely sings "da da da" for a third.  The basic track was recorded at Chappell Recording Studios on August 22nd and 23rd, the second night turning out to be Epstein's final visit to a Beatles session.  A remake was attempted and abandoned in September before returning to the original version and adding an organ part by John to the instrumental breaks.  This song is used for a big production number at the end of the film. 

SIDE B

I Am the Walrus - I have already covered this song as the B-side to Hello Goodbye in my most recent entry, but this is as good a time as any to point out that the group did learn something from director Richard Lester, and that was how to film a musical sequence.  The one for this song is the best in the film and, like the sequences for Can't Buy Me Love and Ticket to Ride, serves as yet another fine example of a stand-alone music video years before the creation of MTV.

SIDE C

The Fool on the Hill - A minor classic by McCartney, which could have easily been released as a single, as evidenced by a cover version by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 that went to number six.  While the lyrics are little more than a simple character portrait, the melody and the recording itself are sublime.  Paul plays a fine solo on recorder, John and George add harmonica and Ringo plays finger cymbals.  To further enhance the sound, George Martin wrote a score for three flutes.  The sequence for this song was filmed at great expense in Nice, France, showing Paul on a hilltop shot from a helicopter.

Flying - The only instrumental ever released during their career and the first composition to be credited to all four Beatles.  And, even though it is technically an instrumental, all four Beatles sing "la la la" for the final verse.  The fairly simple melody is performed by the group on their usual instruments, with John adding the Mellotron.  The sounds at the end of the song were compiled by John and Ringo and continued for several minutes, but the recording is wisely cut short.

SIDE D

Blue Jay Way - Harrison's contribution to the soundtrack is a swirling psychedelic piece composed while he was in LA waiting for a friend on a foggy night.  You truly get the sense of the fog in the sonic textures, from the eerie organ to the distorted backing vocals by John and Paul to the lone cello scored by George Martin.  It is also the most psychedelic musical sequence in the film.

In the US, Capitol Records knew that the double EP would not be popular with the American audience, so they created an album by putting all of the soundtrack songs on side one and all of the singles from 1967 on side two, making a very attractive package - so attractive that it became a best-selling import in the UK.  By 1976, the double EP was discontinued, and in 1987, when the group's entire catalog was first issued on CD, Magical Mystery Tour had the distinction of being the only album presented in its original American format.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Hello Goodbye b/w I Am the Walrus

It was perhaps inevitable following the incredible highs of Sgt. Pepper and the Our World broadcast that the Beatles had nowhere to go but down.  The songs that they recorded in the late spring and early summer of 1967 for the soundtracks of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine were pretty lackluster, but it was the death of manager Brian Epstein on August 27th that put the group into a tailspin.  And even though they decided to push ahead with the Magical Mystery Tour project, it was an unfocused effort, well below the standard that they had set themselves earlier in the year.

Hello Goodbye - This song by McCartney was released in conjunction with the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, but was not part of it.  While the yin/yang lyrics are an interesting idea, they don't really go anywhere.  However, Paul's innate musical ingenuity is on full display here.  Like Penny Lane, the track has multiple levels of sound, and something manages to catch the ear at almost every moment.  A different mix of the song is featured on Anthology 2 with a much more prominent guitar part from George, yet for some reason, the released version omits quite a bit of it.  In addition to Ringo's drums, numerous forms of percussion are used, including bongos, maracas, tambourine and conga drum.  George Martin added a score for two violas.  But the best part of the song is saved for last - the "hey la, hey la hey lo" chorus with Ringo cutting loose on his tom toms.

Fresh off of his stint on Magical Mystery Tour, Paul directed the promotional film for the single, which shows the group onstage at the Saville Theatre performing the song in various outfits, including their Sgt. Pepper regalia.

I Am the Walrus - Lennon's only composition for the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack was also chosen to be released as this B-side.  The lyrics are pure gobbledigook, written that way in part to confound those who were reading significance into the group's words that either wasn't intended or simply wasn't there.  The music - the sound - is fascinating and quite unlike anything else they ever recorded.

The rhythm track was recorded on September 5th.  It was their first time in the studio after Epstein's death, and according to engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There and Everywhere, it was an understandably somber session, with Paul using a tambourine to help the usually-unflappable Ringo keep a steady beat.  Take 16 of this basic track, along with John's eerie lead vocal, is on Anthology 2.  Even with the sound this stripped-down, it would have been a remarkable release.

Weeks later, George Martin added two overdubs, the first being a 16 piece orchestra playing his most unusual score yet, featuring much sliding up and down from note to note as the musicians on Harrison's Within You Without You had done.  The second overdub was of a commercial group called the Mike Sammes Singers providing some truly bizarre backing vocals, also orchestrated by Martin.  At this point, the recording was complete...until John decided to take an active hand at the mixing stage.  Halfway through the song, he suddenly added a live radio feed into the mix, randomly and unknowingly settling on a BBC broadcast of Shakespeare's King Lear.  The voices that bubble to the surface from time to time are from Act IV, scene vi when Edgar kills Oswald, so that we hear such ominous phrases as "Bury my body," "O, untimely death" and "What, is he dead?"

An unintended result of the live feed was that the song could not be truly mixed for stereo due to the equipment limitations of the time, so in the stereo version, only the first half of the song is in true stereo.  Once the radio feed enters, the mix is in mono, but the mix moves from speaker to speaker to create a unique and disorienting effect.

The single, released late in November, was another worldwide number one.  In the UK, I Am the Walrus was also on the Magical Mystery Tour EP, released in early December.  In the US, both songs appeared on the Magical Mystery Tour album, released on the same day as the single.     

Sunday, February 5, 2012

All You Need Is Love b/w Baby, You're a Rich Man

Before Sgt. Pepper was even released, the Beatles were already writing and recording songs for two new projects that they had lined up.  As if that wasn't enough to occupy them, manager Brian Epstein suddenly informed the group that they had a third, more immediate project which required their attention - they were to represent Great Britain in the first-ever worldwide satellite television broadcast, entitled Our World.  Despite the fact that the date for this event was little more than a month away, the boys still managed to put it on the back burner. 

With the deadline looming and Epstein reminding them of the task at hand, it was once again John Lennon who rose to the occasion and came up with the goods, as he had with the title songs for A Hard Day's Night and Help!  Since the group was to be seen in the studio recording a new single, John felt that it would be the perfect time to send a positive message to the entire world.

All You Need Is Love - The Beatles and producer George Martin gathered at Olympic Sound Studios on June 14th, 1967 to lay down a most peculiar backing track consisting of John on harpsichord, Paul on double bass, Ringo on drums and George inexplicably deciding to play a violin for the first time in his life.  Back at Abbey Road in the ensuing days, they added overdubs of Martin on piano, more drums and John on banjo, an instrument his mother Julia had played.   And, working counter to the usual procedure, they did the backing vocals first.  A thirteen piece orchestra was brought in a few days before the big event to provide some additional backing.

On June 25th, the date of the broadcast, they arrived early in the day to rehearse with the orchestra and the backing track.  For the six minutes that they were on the air, everyone was extremely nervous as they were seen first rehearsing a bit, waiting as the tape was rewound and then recording the orchestra, more drums, George's lead guitar, Paul's bass and John's lead vocal live.  The studio was adorned with posters, flowers and another crowd of friends including Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Marianne Faithfull, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Graham Nash and more, all of whom joined in the chorus.  Later in the evening, after everyone else had gone, a few overdubs were added and the song was complete.

The music is a hodgepodge, from the opening moment of La Marseillaise, through the strange dropped beats in the verses and ending with Martin's wacky blending of Greensleeves, In the Mood and a Bach two-part invention.  And the lyrics are Lennon at his most simplistic, although that was what the BBC requested in order that the whole world could instantly grasp the message.  But, as guest Keith Richards told Rolling Stone in 1987 (note that he had added the "s" to his last name in the interim), "Try livin' off of it."  Nevertheless, the song immediately became the anthem of the Summer of Love.

Baby, You're a Rich Man - This Lennon-McCartney collaboration is another blending of two unfinished songs - in this instance, the verses are by Lennon and the refrain by McCartney.  The lyrics don't amount to very much.  The verses are an absurd take on the equally-absurd press conferences the group had been subjected to for years.  And the refrain is simply nonsensical.  Aside from the usual instruments, John plays a keyboard called a Clavioline, which provides some unique accents throughout the song.  The recording was completed in one session at Olympic Sound Studios, with Mick Jagger in attendance and possibly joining in for the chorus.

This song had been recorded back on May 11th and was actually the first to be set aside for the upcoming animated film Yellow Submarine, but when a B-side was needed at the last minute for this single, it was pulled from that project, although a brief snippet of the song did eventually make its way into the movie.  All You Need Is Love, on the other hand, wound up playing a pivotal part in the film, and later appeared on the soundtrack album in 1969.

The single was rush-released in July of 1967 in the wake of the Our World broadcast and became a worldwide number one hit.  Both of these songs also appeared on the Magical Mystery Tour LP in the US at the end of the year.        

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Day in the Life

I referred to this song in my most recent entry as the Beatles' magnum opus.  I was not exaggerating.  Despite releasing an unbroken string of innovative singles throughout their career, this recording stands alone as the most phenomenal piece they ever committed to tape.  It represents the Lennon-McCartney collaboration at its best, the two songwriters combining their efforts to create an undisputed masterwork.  Perhaps the only negative thing that can be said about the recording is that George Harrison had little or nothing to do with it.

The verses in the main body of the song are by Lennon, the first and last inspired by actual stories that he read in the newspaper.  The overall tone would be bleak, indeed, were it not for McCartney's added line, "I'd love to turn you on," which, though it is worded in the drug parlance of the day, is more about uplifting one's spirits, transcending the everyday to a more enlightened state of awareness.  In addition to this all-important line, McCartney had an unfinished song which perfectly complemented John's verses.  When joined together, the two sections painted a stunning portrait of the everyman in the Western world in the latter half of the 20th century.

The basic track was laid down on January 19th, 1967.  It featured Paul on piano, John on acoustic guitar, maracas (probably Ringo) and barely-audible bongos (reportedly George).  John also recorded his haunting lead vocal on this day.  Between the first three verses and Paul's section of the song, they left an extended gap of 24 measures, not quite sure how they were going to fill it up.  Their assistant Mal Evans, his voice drenched in echo, counted off the measures, then set off an alarm clock to mark the end of that section.  Since the first line of Paul's section is, "Woke up, fell out of bed," the alarm clock was kept in the master.  After John's final verse, Mal's counting was repeated (minus the alarm clock), and then, the song abruptly stopped. 

They returned to the studio the next day and recorded three overdubs, but these were all wiped and redone on February 3rd.  These included Paul's vocal for his section, plus his bass line and Ringo's drums.  In Derek Taylor's book It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, musician Al Kooper talks about the drumming, saying, "...this record had what I call 'space fills' where they would leave a tremendous amount of air."  He was talking about Sgt. Pepper in general, but the comment especially applies to Ringo's work on the early verses of this track, where he displays an uncanny feel for what is just right in the moment.

Eventually, Paul figured out what to do to fill in the 24-measure gap.  On February 10th, forty musicians in full evening dress gathered in studio one at Abbey Road.  Producer George Martin, also in evening dress, had written out a most peculiar score for them to play.  Each instrument was to start at its lowest possible note, then slowly slide up to its highest possible note ending in an E-major chord.  The musicians were to pay no attention to one another in order to make the sound absolutely chaotic.  As Paul assisted Martin in conducting the bewildered orchestra, the other Beatles and their friends wandered around with cameras and passed out silly party favors.  Mark Lewisohn says in The Beatles: Recording Sessions that four good takes were overdubbed by two four-track machines linked together on that day to produce the sound of a 160-piece orchestra.

After the musicians were dismissed, Lewisohn reports that Paul gathered the others (including Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, and Michael Nesmith of the Monkees) around a microphone to record an extended hum which was to follow the second orchestral crescendo and end the song.  Despite much laughter, they ultimately succeeded and the song was complete...

...until February 22nd, when a better idea emerged.  An E-major chord, the same one played by the orchestra at the peak of the crescendo, would be struck on three pianos simultaneously.  Sounds pretty simple, but it took nine takes before John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans could hit the keys at exactly the same instant.  Then, with the sustain pedals on the pianos held down, engineer Geoff Emerick played the faders of the control board like a virtuoso to capture every last second of decaying sound.  The combination of the orchestra and the pianos achieved what John had wanted all along, "a sound like the end of the world."

Coming at the end of Sgt. Pepper as the encore-to-end-all-encores, it lends the frothy, psychedelic album some much-needed gravitas.  Indeed, more than any other song on the record, it is responsible for the album's reputation as a great work of art.  No less a person than the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said in an interview*, "...Three bars of 'A Day in the Life' still sustain me, rejuvenate me, inflame my senses and sensibilities." 

*quoted in William J. Dowlding's Beatlesongs, from The Beatles by Geoffrey Stokes (1979), via Companion