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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ABBEY ROAD - side two

Here Comes the Sun - A glorious composition by Harrison opens the second side of the album with a gentle acoustic guitar passage.  The Moog synthesizer enters and slides from speaker to speaker before George starts singing his welcome to spring.  He uses the Moog quite effectively for the build during the "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes" bridge.  George Martin adds an elegant orchestral score; the track also features trademark Beatlesque backing vocals and handclaps.  George performed acoustic versions of this song in 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh and several years later on Saturday Night Live with Paul Simon.

Because - The last stand-alone song on the album is this beautiful composition by Lennon.  He continues to simplify his lyrics here, yet still manages to throw in some subtle wordplay.  The backing track features Paul on bass, John on guitar and Martin on electric harpsichord.  Harrison overdubbed his Moog synthesizer part days later.  Of course, the highlight of the piece is the vocal harmonies of John, Paul and George, scored by Martin and recorded three times over to give the effect of nine voices.  On Anthology 3, the instrumentation is deleted, leaving only the voices for your maximum enjoyment.  Though this song is not part of the medley which follows, the way the final note hangs in the air somehow manages to link it up perfectly.

You Never Give Me Your Money - Partly inspired by an earlier work of his songwriting partner and by such compositions as The Who's A Quick One While He's Away, and encouraged by Martin, who urged him to "think symphonically," McCartney conceived of a medley made up of several unrelated (and sometimes, unfinished) songs, running almost the entire length of an album side.  Like Lennon's Happiness is a Warm Gun, this opening number is practically a medley in and of itself.  A somber piano leads into the first two verses with lyrics based on the ongoing business woes at Apple.  The song then shifts gears into various sections featuring a rollicking piano, a chiming guitar, rich wordless vocal harmonies, more layers of guitar and one final rocking sequence before settling into the "all good children go to heaven" chant for the fadeout.  The segue into the next number proved problematic.  At one point, it was simply an organ note, until Paul came in with tape loops of several sound effects including crickets and bells.

Sun King - Lennon initially expressed disinterest in the medley until he was asked if he had any song snippets that he wished to contribute.  He came up with three.  The basic tracks of Sun King and Mean Mr. Mustard were recorded as one continuous piece.  The night sounds of the segue blend right into Ringo's cymbal and the hushed opening segment of this unusual composition.  All instruments come to a stop as vocal harmonies almost as lush as those in Because enter.  After a few simple and beautiful verses, the lyrics suddenly veer into the absurd for no apparent reason.

Mean Mr. Mustard - Lennon wrote this composition in India and recorded a demo at George's house in Esher in May of 1968 before the "White Album" sessions.  The demo is available on Anthology 3.  Note that the title character's sister was named Shirley, not Pam, at that time.  This brief number segues right into the next in the medley, but the recording actually came to a full stop.  The final chord is heard much later on the album.

Polythene Pam - Another Lennon number written in India and recorded as a demo at Esher in May of '68 with slightly different lyrics, and also available on Anthology 3.  For the medley, this song and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window were recorded as one.  John thrashes at his guitar before each verse, and uses his best Scouse accent for the vocal.  A brief guitar solo after the verses is followed by a series of descending chords leading straight into the next song.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window - The rest of the album is all McCartney songs beginning with this rocker.  On Anthology 3, you can hear the group rehearsing the song at the Get Back sessions in January with Billy Preston.  Interestingly, the tempo was slow and bluesy at that time.  The released version is brisk and features those great Beatlesque backing harmonies.  At the conclusion of this number, the medley comes to a full stop before continuing.

Golden Slumbers - McCartney discovered a song based on a 400-year-old poem by Thomas Dekker in a book at his father's house, added a verse and wrote his own music for it to create this wistful, nostalgic number.  This was recorded together with Carry That Weight as one continuous piece in Lennon's absence.  For the basic track, Paul is on piano, George on bass and Ringo on drums.  Martin later wrote the orchestration which figures in both sections.

Carry That Weight - This is the song that ties the medley together by using a third verse of You Never Give Me Your Money and a recapitulation of the closing theme from that earlier number.  The refrain features all four Beatles singing the eerily-prescient line "you're gonna carry that weight a long time."  They would all spend the next decade trying to escape the group image, but ultimately, each would learn to come to terms with their unparalleled legacy.  The end of this recording was cut off abruptly to accommodate a segue to a yet-to-be-determined closing number.

The End - McCartney found a way to encapsulate the group's career in this aptly titled number.  A hard-rocking intro leads straight into Ringo's brief, but characteristic drum solo, then another brief section (Love, yeah) sets up the famous guitar duel.  Paul, George and John take turns playing a few bars three times each, displaying their various personal styles in the process.  According to engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There and Everywhere, they nailed it in one take and shared one final great moment of camaraderie.  A solo piano takes over for a moment before the ultimate couplet "And, in the end..." sung in Beatlesque harmony builds up to a grand finale with full orchestra behind them.

Her Majesty - The shortest song requires a lengthy explanation.  McCartney quickly recorded this little ditty with his acoustic guitar one day before the others arrived.  It was originally inserted into the medley between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, but after hearing it there, Paul asked for it to be cut out and discarded.  In The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn relates that engineer John Kurlander was told to never throw anything away, and so, he spliced it onto the end of the medley with a long piece of leader tape.  It startled the group at the next listening, but Paul loved it and decided to leave it in as a sort of bonus track, only requesting that the final chord be cut off.  The crashing chord at its top is actually the last chord of Mean Mr. Mustard.

The album was released on September 26th in the UK and October 1st in the US, and was immediately hailed as their latest masterpiece.  Unbeknownst to the public at large, Lennon announced to the group around this time that he was quitting.  The facade would be maintained for another six months.             

Monday, April 9, 2012

ABBEY ROAD - side one

Abbey Road defies the odds.  By all rights, the Beatles should have gone their separate ways after the acrimonious Get Back sessions, yet they continued to work together on numerous tracks throughout the late winter and spring of 1969.  During this period, Glyn Johns produced the Get Back album which John and Paul had requested of him, but it was rejected by the group as sounding too rough and was considered to be unreleasable.  It wasn't until the summer that Paul asked George Martin to help the group produce an album "the way we used to do it."  With engineer Geoff Emerick also back on board, the team that had created the masterpieces Revolver and Sgt. Pepper managed to find the magic one last time.

After the raw, live-in-the-studio feel of the Get Back sessions, the decision was made to go to the opposite extreme and produce their most polished album.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick opines that eight-track technology actually made it too mellow, and waxes nostalgic about the old four-track work they had done together, which required more creativity and problem-solving.  But, for good or ill, the production values achieved here set the standard for the industry well into the 1970's.    

Come Together
Something  - These two tracks were released as a single about a month after the album, so I will cover them in a later entry.  Suffice it to say that they get the proceedings off to a tremendous start with a brilliant one-two punch.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer - This cute little ditty by McCartney definitely falls into the "you either love it or hate it" category.  An early take is on Anthology 3, but the song was rehearsed at Twickenham Film Studios in January and appears in the film Let It Be.  At that time, assistant Mal Evans hit a piece of metal with a hammer on cue, but for the recording, an anvil was brought into the studio for Ringo to use.  Some new sounds that appear on the album came from an invention called the Moog synthesizer.  George Harrison had been among the first to acquire one for his solo album Electronic Sound.  Now, the group wisely resisted the temptation to go crazy with it, using it on only a few tracks.  The conventional way to play it is with its keyboard, but Paul, a musical adept, uses the much more difficult ribbon-slide for the harmony line he plays on this song.  John was present for the sessions for this track, but may not have participated at all.  The backing vocals are by Paul, George and Ringo.

Oh! Darling - A bluesy screamer by McCartney, in which he gives one of his greatest vocal performances.  He had debuted the song one day back in January during the Get Back sessions.  At that time, he sang it alongside a harmony vocal from John and some fine electric piano work by Billy Preston, as can be heard on Anthology 3.  The Abbey Road version was begun in April, this time with John playing the distinctive piano part.  It wasn't until July that Paul went into the studio every day for almost a week to attempt his lead vocal first thing before his voice was warmed up to get the raw feeling that he wanted.  It's too bad the rest of the track doesn't match that rawness, opting instead for slick backing vocals and the pristine production values used throughout the album.

Octopus's Garden - The second composition credited to Richard Starkey is a rockabilly joy.  Ringo got his inspiration for this song during his brief walkout from the "White Album" sessions while on holiday with his family in Sardinia.  In the film Let It Be, George helps him with the chords at a piano, so the tune was at least partially written by January of 1969.  The basic track was recorded in April with the full group involved.  The sound effects are reminiscent of Yellow Submarine, featuring water bubbles blown through a straw and high harmonies by Paul and George made to sound as if they are singing underwater.  But the trademark rockabilly guitar work by George is the standout work on the recording.  He and Ringo would team up on several tracks in this manner throughout their solo careers.

I Want You (She's So Heavy) - Side one comes to a close with this monster track by Lennon, which had also been rehearsed during the Get Back sessions.  He took some heat when the album was released because of the simplicity of the lyrics, but this song is all about the feel of the music.  The basic track was the first to be recorded for the album, at Trident Studios on February 22nd, less than a month after the Get Back sessions ended.  Billy Preston was still working with the group at the time, and provided the swirling organ part.  As he had done with Strawberry Fields Forever, John combined different takes of the song for the master, this time patching together three of them.  John and George added several layers of guitars to this master in April, on the same day that George completed his B-side Old Brown Shoe.  In August, John used the Moog synthesizer for a white noise effect during the extended coda.  The song received multiple mixes, and John decided to combine two of these for the final master, running just over eight minutes in length.  However, at seven minutes and forty-four seconds, John instructed Geoff Emerick to simply cut the tape, bringing the album side to an abrupt and unexpected end - a jarring effect.

Of the four tracks I covered above, only Maxwell's Silver Hammer was produced exclusively by George Martin.  The basic track for I Want You (She's So Heavy) was produced by Glyn Johns, and the basic tracks for Oh! Darling and Octopus's Garden were produced by Chris Thomas.                     

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Ballad of John and Yoko b/w Old Brown Shoe

The single Get Back had barely hit the stores when John Lennon, fresh from his whirlwind marriage and honeymoon with Yoko Ono, showed up at Abbey Road Studios on April 14th, 1969 with a new composition in hand based on those experiences, wanting to record it immediately.  Only Paul, always eager to record, was available.  Undeterred, the two of them set to work on the next single.

The Ballad of John and Yoko - Imagine the chutzpah it takes to believe that you can write a song about yourself and your new wife, put your names in the title, and expect that people will actually want to buy it and listen to it.  That is exactly what Lennon did and, amazingly, he was right.  Whether the press loved them or hated them, they could not get enough of John and Yoko, and the couple was smart enough to use that to their advantage at every turn.  The lyrics of the verses in the song are factual, and the journey they trace is pretty outrageous.  The refrain and the bridge comment on the action, putting it all in an equally-outrageous perspective.

None of this would matter if the song were not entertaining, and John was a master showman.  He and Paul spent the day concocting a simple, perky three-minute pop record that was hard to resist.  From all accounts, the two of them had a blast laying down the basic track of rhythm guitar, lead vocal and drums, then overdubbing every other instrument and some typically bright vocal harmonies.  Engineer Geoff Emerick, who had quit working with the group about a third of the way into the sessions for the "White Album" due to the tension, was back with them for the first time on this day, and had nothing negative to report.

Old Brown Shoe - With the single in need of a B-side, Harrison chipped in with this uptempo number.  He was really hitting his stride as a composer at this time and had begun to stockpile quite a few songs, especially since John and Paul had given short shrift to several of his offerings during the Get Back sessions.  He made three solo demos on February 25th - this song among them - all of which would eventually see the light of day.   (These demos, which include the title song of his landmark solo album All Things Must Pass, are all on Anthology 3.)

Only two days after John and Paul recorded the A-side, all four Beatles were available and met to work on this number.  George's lead vocal, recorded huddled in a corner at his request, sounds muddy on the track, but if you can pick out the lyrics, they contain some fun yin/yang wordplay.  Paul's bass line, particularly in the bridges, is a marvel, and George plays a wonderful lead guitar during the instrumental break.  I have always felt that the tempo of this song is so brisk that Ringo sounds as if he is trying to keep up with the group instead of driving them, as he usually does, but that is a minor criticism.  George overdubbed a Hammond organ part on April 18th to complete the recording.

The single was released on May 30th in the UK and on June 4th in the US as Get Back was still sitting at number one on the charts - a curious move.  In the UK, The Ballad of John and Yoko still managed to take over the top spot and, in fact, it proved to be the group's last number one in their native land.  In the US, the refrain, which opened with the word "Christ" and ended with "they're gonna crucify me," did not go over well with the same people who had been offended by John's "We're bigger than Jesus" interview in 1966, and the song received either limited airplay or none at all in some parts of the country.  I can remember WPRO-AM in Providence, RI broadcasting a version of the song which edited out the word "Christ" at the top of each refrain, and I'm sure this was used elsewhere, as well.  The record peaked at number eight on the Billboard chart.  Both of these songs appeared on the US compilation album Hey Jude in February of 1970.  (So did the B-side of the previous single, Don't Let Me Down, a fact I failed to mention in my last entry.)

This was the first single by the Beatles to be released in stereo worldwide.  No mono mixes exist for either one of these songs.  And these sessions marked the last time that the group went into the studio for the express purpose of recording a single.