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Friday, December 16, 2016

Blackbird

Though the Beatles spent a total of five months working on the "White Album," a surprising number of its tracks were recorded in single sessions.  The previous entry, Birthday, was one such example - Blackbird is another.  This is also the first of several solo performances on the sprawling double album, most of them by McCartney.

Paul recorded the song on June 11th, 1968 as John worked down the hall compiling sound effects for  Revolution 9.  Producer George Martin was present as Paul rehearsed, but he left before proper recording began, so engineer Geoff Emerick took over the session.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick writes that Paul wanted to sound as if he were singing outdoors, so Emerick set up a stool and microphones outside behind the studio's echo chamber.  The engineer actually set up three microphones - one for Paul's vocal, one for his acoustic guitar and one for his tapping foot.

Perfectionist that he is, Paul did thirty-two takes of the song, though only eleven of them were complete.  Anthology 2 presents take four, which has a slightly altered structure though it is not substantially different from the master.  The final take was the keeper, so it received overdubs of a second vocal during the refrains and the sound effect of a chirping bird.  Emerick claims that some of the background bird sounds were picked up live by the microphones while recording.

I have in my possession a bootleg featuring Paul and Donovan chatting and trading songs, Blackbird among them.  Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth article on this song says that this occurred in January of 1969 as they were getting ready to work on a session with Apple artist Mary Hopkin.  Paul jokes that he had recently played the song for Diana Ross and "...she took offense - not really!"  He then goes on to confirm that he had written it about the civil rights movement after hearing about some riots and demonstrates his point by emphasizing the lyrics.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Birthday

On September 18th, 1968, BBC2 broadcast the film The Girl Can't Help It for the first time on British television.  Though it starred Jayne Mansfield, it was most notable for the many rock and roll performers who were featured, including Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.  Each of the Beatles remembered seeing this film when it played in cinemas back in 1956 and, though they had a session scheduled that evening, they were excited about the prospect of seeing it again.

Paul McCartney arrived at Abbey Road Studios around 5pm and began playing a simple riff on piano and building it into a song.  When the others showed up, they helped to complete the basic structure and they decided to record it while it was still fresh.  With Ringo on drums, George on bass, Paul on lead guitar and John on tambourine, twenty takes were laid down until they got it right.  While the Birthday riff is quite simple, the layout of the song is rather tricky, which probably accounts for the high number of takes.  In his in-depth look at the song, Dave Rybaczewski notates the structure as aabcadca, or verse (instrumental)/verse/pre-bridge/bridge/verse (instrumental)/segue/bridge/verse - surprising for a song made up on the spot.

At this point, everyone popped over to Paul's house to watch The Girl Can't Help It.  Returning to the studio a few hours later, energized after seeing so many of their rock and roll heroes, they resumed work on the song.  The first task was to take the unusual step of transferring take twenty, which had been recorded on four-track tape, to eight-track tape to allow for easier overdubbing.

Paul and John recorded their lead vocal parts, John added a second lead guitar line identical to the one Paul had played (except an octave higher), and Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison sang the word "birthday" multiple times during the bridges.  The most interesting overdub, however, was played by Paul on a piano which sounds as if it were an early synthesizer.  Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth article on the session compiles no less than five different stories about how that sound was achieved.  However they did it, it stands out as being absolutely unique.

By 4am, the song was complete and session producer Chris Thomas, who was sitting in for the vacationing George Martin and who had originally informed the Beatles that The Girl Can't Help It was on the telly that evening, mixed the song for mono.  When the double album was being assembled a month or so later, Birthday was chosen to open side three.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite

The story goes that the Beatles were in Sevenoaks, Kent making a promotional film for their new single Strawberry Fields Forever on January 31st, 1967 when, during a break, John Lennon wandered into an antique shop and bought a poster that he fancied which described a circus act in great detail.  The lyrics for the song Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite come almost exclusively from that poster.  For many years, it was believed that Lennon wrote the song alone, but Paul McCartney has rather recently revealed that he and John worked on the song together at John's house while constantly referring to the poster for inspiration.

The song was ready to be recorded on February 17th.  The only instruments on the basic track this day were Ringo's drums, Paul's bass and a harmonium played by producer George Martin.  On Anthology 2, we hear the first two very brief takes, with Paul advising John on how he should sing the song after the second take breaks down.  Take seven was best and two reduction mixes (remember that the Beatles were still using four-track tape at this time!) brought the master to take nine.  John overdubbed a new lead vocal and Paul and George added their brief harmony vocals onto this take.

At this point, John merely told George Martin that he wanted "to smell the sawdust" as a guide to all further work on the track.  Over the weekend, Martin searched high and low for a calliope that could be brought into the studio to help create a circus atmosphere, then opted instead for as many recordings of calliope music as he could round up on short notice.

On February 20th, as the Beatles waited impatiently in the studio, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick cut the tapes of calliope samples into pieces, threw them up in the air and reassembled them at random.  The resulting wash of sound delighted the group once they heard it, though it would not be overdubbed onto the master for more than a month.

Work on the album Sgt. Pepper was nearing completion by the time they returned to the recording on March 28th.  Bass harmonicas were added to the song on this date, with George, Ringo and assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evens all taking turns playing according to various reports.  John also added a Hammond organ and Paul picked out a guitar part featured in the instrumental break.  The calliope tape was overdubbed on the 29th and George Martin added a second organ piece on a Wurlitzer, once again playing at half-speed as he had on In My Life so he could more easily make the chromatic runs.

The recording was finally finished on the 31st with Martin adding yet another swirling organ run and a glockenspiel at the end of the song and possibly pounding out the piano chords that introduce the last verse, as well.  Even on an album noted for the complexity of the recording process for each of its songs, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite stands out as one of the most complex.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Because

John picking out a part on the Moog synthesizer
The very last song that John Lennon offered to the Beatles was this beautifully simple composition.  The story goes that he had been inspired to write it after hearing Yoko sit down at the piano one day to play Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata.  Perhaps he already had an arrangement in mind while writing it, because the recording was uniquely suited to the Beatles' capabilities.

Although Ringo does not appear on that recording, he played an integral part in the process, tapping out a beat on a hi-hat that John and producer George Martin could hear in their headphones as they played the basic arpeggios on guitar and electric harpsichord over and over again.  Paul also played a bass line on those twenty-three takes before the tape was rewound and they decided that take sixteen was the best.  The group then moved on to the most intricate part of the track - the three-part harmonies sung by John, Paul and George.  All of the above work was completed on August 1st, 1969.

The group returned to the track on August 4th, overdubbing the three-part harmonies two more times to end up with a total of nine voices on the master.  Getting the vocals just right took a great deal of time, with George Martin guiding the boys as he had in their early days on Lennon's other three-part harmony compositions This Boy and Yes It Is.  The precision they achieved here was so perfect that years later, in 1996, this song would appear on Anthology 3 in a vocals-only version for listeners' maximum appreciation.

The final touch was added on August 5th.  George Harrison had brought his Moog synthesizer to Abbey Road Studios and had it set up in a small room for the group's use.  Wires were run to the control room and George played a few brief parts on the synthesizer's keyboard as overdubs for the middle and end of the song.  This new instrument was introduced with such subtlety that it did not sound out of place among the guitars and electric harpsichord.

Because was not considered to be part of the long medley on side two of Abbey Road, but its final chord hangs in the air in such a way that it perfectly sets up the opening of Paul's You Never Give Me Your Money - yet another brilliant decision by Martin and the group when it came time to select the sequence of songs for an album.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Imagine your one-time best friend saying to you, "I've just written a song about my honeymoon.  Want to hear it?"  Though you might courteously reply in the affirmative, you would probably be cringing inside, especially if the person your friend married irritated you and contributed to the deterioration of your friendship.  If you were a good friend like Paul McCartney, however, not only would you listen to John Lennon's song, you would then agree to help him record it.

This was the situation on April 14th, 1969, when the two old mates got together at Paul's house, then headed over to Abbey Road Studios to produce the next single attributed to the Beatles.  John was impatient and wanted to record the song immediately, but Ringo was busy filming The Magic Christian and George may or may not have been out of the country, so John and Paul took it upon themselves to get the job done.  The fact that they were reunited with both producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick for the first time in many months assured that the process would be quick and efficient.

They recorded eleven takes with Paul on drums as John sang and played acoustic guitar.  Take ten being the best, the duo then proceeded to add numerous overdubs onto it, including piano, bass, maracas and an occasional harmony vocal by Paul, plus two electric lead guitar parts and percussive thumps on the back of an acoustic guitar by John.  The recording was only mixed for stereo - the first by the Beatles to not receive a mono mix. 

Paul clearly saw that, in spite of the outrageous subject material, John had a winning composition in hand, with a catchy refrain and a simple, straightforward groove.  George and Ringo must have agreed in order for them all to affix the group name to the finished product.  And fans in the UK responded, as well, buying enough copies to make the record a number one hit.  The sacrilegious lyrics of the song kept it off the airwaves in parts of the USA, however, where it peaked at number eight on the Billboard chart.    

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Bad Boy

The Beatles were in the final days of filming their second feature Help! when a request arrived from Capitol Records in the USA.  The American record label was assembling a compilation album and was still in need of a couple tracks to make up the usual total of eleven on a standard US release.  So, on the evening of May 10th, 1965, after a full day of shooting, the boys reported to Abbey Road Studios to see what they could come up with on such short notice.

They were not scheduled to begin recording songs for the non-soundtrack side of the Help! album for another month and presumably were not willing to sacrifice any compositions they had prepared for that purpose.  They therefore looked to their pre-fame stage act for any songs that would specifically appeal to their American audience and came up with a pair from one of John's favorite rockers - the relatively obscure Larry Williams.  The group had recorded Williams' scorcher Slow Down the previous year for the Long Tall Sally EP.  They now turned their attention to Dizzy Miss Lizzie and Bad Boy - two songs by Williams that had been part of their lengthy set list in both Hamburg and Liverpool.

The band knew Bad Boy so well that only four takes were necessary to arrive at the master with everyone playing their usual instruments.  They then overdubbed John on organ, Paul on electric piano, a second lead guitar part by George and Ringo on tambourine, plus John's incredible lead vocal.

The song was a perfect choice for its targeted American audience with its references to a hula hoop, a jukebox, chewing gum and a laundromat.  The recordings of Bad Boy and Dizzy Miss Lizzie were quickly dashed off to Capitol Records and they appeared roughly five weeks later on the album Beatles VI, released on June 14th.

Though not intended for that purpose, Dizzy Miss Lizzie was soon added to the British album Help!, but Bad Boy was kept in reserve for a year and a half.  It finally materialized in the UK on the first greatest hits package A Collection of Beatles' Oldies in December of 1966 as a sort of bonus track. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Back in the USSR

Paul McCartney was never shy about telling the other members of the Beatles how he wanted something to be played.  While this perfectionist streak often yielded great results, it also tended to rankle his bandmates more and more as the years went by.  Surprisingly, the first one to decide that enough was enough was the normally unflappable Ringo.  Things came to a head on August 22nd, 1968, and the usually easygoing drummer announced that he was quitting the Beatles.  Though John, Paul and George were initially taken aback by Ringo's departure, they nonetheless carried on, making two complete recordings in his absence.

Back in the USSR was the song that prompted Ringo's walkout.  It's a pretty straightforward rocker, so it's hard to imagine exactly what Paul wanted that Ringo couldn't get.  Paul wound up playing the drums on the basic track, as George played guitar and John picked up the bass part.  Only five takes were required to achieve the master.  The next day, August 23rd, the recording was completed with numerous overdubs including drum fills by John and George, additional bass lines by Paul and George, more guitar from Paul, piano, handclaps, backing vocals and, of course, the jet engine sound which flies in and out of the soundscape.

McCartney had composed the song in the spring of '68 in Rishikesh, India during the group's time there to study Transcendental Meditation.  Mike Love of the Beach Boys was also there and it was he who suggested the idea of referring to Russian women as if they were California Girls.  Those lyrics inspired the wonderful backing vocals in the style of the Beach Boys during the bridge.

When John and Paul laid out the running order for the double album The Beatles in a marathon 24-hour session on October 16th and 17th, they chose this number to open side one.  It immediately signals the listener that this album is a return to basic rock and roll after the group's psychedelic excursions of 1967.

Paul added the song to his live set list years ago and it has generally remained there as one of his mainstays.  And Ringo finally got to play on the song in concert on July 4th, 1984 in Washington, DC with - of all people - Mike Love and the Beach Boys.

As for Paul's drumming on the original recording, most critics rate it average at best.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Baby's in Black

On Ready, Steady, Go! - November 1964
In 1963, Lennon and McCartney had worked together to write a number of songs including a brilliant string of number one hits - From Me to You, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand - but, by 1964, they had already taken to writing alone and collaborating with each other only when one of them required help in finishing off a song or fine-tuning it in the studio.  As they prepared to begin sessions for their fourth album, however, they actually sat down in the same room, "eyeball to eyeball" as John once said, to write a song from scratch for the first time in months.

Musically, they wanted to write a song in 3/4 time and, lyrically, they wanted to tackle somewhat darker subject matter - a woman mourning a lost love.  In addition, once the group convened in the studio on August 11th, there was a deliberate attempt to give the recording a rockabilly feel.  They had begun to explore this style a few months earlier during the final sessions for the album A Hard Day's Night and they would continue to mine it throughout their work on the new album-in-progress.  Perhaps their initial trip to America back in February had inspired this exploration; their upcoming tour of the USA would only serve to strengthen it.

The most noticeable aspect of the rockabilly sound was George Harrison's twangy guitar, prompting producer George Martin's question, "You want the beginning like that, do you?"  Fourteen takes were necessary to arrive at the master, though George made an additional thirteen attempts to get the distinctive opening right.  John and Paul also double-tracked their joint lead vocals in places and Ringo overdubbed a tambourine to complete the recording.

They debuted the song on the television program Ready, Steady, Go! in November a week before its release on the album Beatles for Sale.  Rather than playing live, the group mimes to the record, though John only pretends to be singing about half the time.  Some members of the standing studio audience actually waltz to the song and one female fan creates some interesting arm movements in time to the music.

John and Paul were quite proud of this song, choosing to add it to the band's live set list.  This is perplexing considering the time signature, the comparative complexity of the composition and the difficulty they had hearing themselves in concert.  When introducing it, John always enjoyed pointing out that the song was a waltz, as you can hear on the 1996 EP Real Love which features a performance of the number at the Hollywood Bowl from August of 1965.  Happily, this track has now been added to the new and improved Live at the Hollywood Bowl album released earlier this year.  They continued to play it in concert right up to and including their final show at Candlestick Park in 1966.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Baby You're a Rich Man

Baby You're a Rich Man was the first song to be recorded specifically for the soundtrack of the animated feature Yellow Submarine.  Contracts for the making of the film had been signed by the group's manager Brian Epstein only days before the Beatles convened at Olympic Sound Studios in London on May 11th, 1967.  The Rolling Stones had been recording at that location and Mick Jagger was present on this day to watch his friends in action.  George Martin was there in his usual capacity as producer, but Olympic studio manager Keith Grant served as engineer.

The song was a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration, joining two unfinished songs together to form a whole.  John's One of the Beautiful People provided the pseudo-press-conference-style verses and the rousing chorus came from Paul.  Though the lyrics deal with the question of fame, they do so in a lightweight, even a lighthearted, manner.  This was the middle of the psychedelic era and it was the overall sound of the recording - the texture, if you will - that was paramount, and the sound they achieved on this day was impressive, indeed.

The most unique element of that sound came from a keyboard called a Clavioline, a precursor to the synthesizer.  John Lennon commandeered this instrument, which was only capable of playing single notes at a time, not chords, and utilized it throughout the song in a haphazard way that somehow works to great effect.  All of the other instruments - piano, guitar, drums and bass - have a clean, sharp sound.  The band's usual Abbey Road Studios engineer Geoff Emerick, a true perfectionist, relates in his book Here, There and Everywhere that he admired the sonic quality of the bass in particular when he heard the finished product.

When the single All You Need Is Love required a B-side soon thereafter, this recording was chosen for that purpose and thus was withdrawn from consideration for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.  A brief snippet of the song was eventually used in the film, however.  Only the introduction is heard very quietly as Ringo takes a hole out of his pocket and frees Sgt. Pepper's band from the glass bowl they have been trapped in for most of the action.  The song therefore made it onto the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album released in 1999.    

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Baby It's You

The Beatles, retroactively referred to by some as the ultimate boy band, were huge fans of American girl groups and did not hesitate to incorporate numerous girl group songs into their live repertoire.  Early in 1961, the Shirelles, one of the first great girl groups, had a hit with a song crafted for them by a unique Brill Building team-up of Burt Bacharach, Mack David and Barney Williams.  Producer Luther Dixon of Scepter Records felt that the demo of Baby It's You was so good that he merely had lead singer Shirley Owens record her vocal on top of it.  (Bacharach's voice can still clearly be heard singing the final "Sha-la-la-la-la" before each verse on the record.)

A lead vocal of such smoldering passion was naturally appealing to John Lennon and the song found its way into the Beatles' stage act.  When their producer George Martin was compiling a list of titles from that act to record for their debut album, Baby It's You easily made the cut.  Time was running short during the evening session on February 11th, 1963 when this number was begun, but the group knew it so well that it only took three takes to get it right.  It was one of only a few recordings on the album to be sweetened, with George Martin overdubbing a celeste on February 20th, doubling George Harrison's very simple lead guitar solo, which itself was a note-for-note recreation of a tacky-sounding organ solo on the Shirelles' original.

The boys continued to perform the song on occasion for several months afterwards.  They even recorded it for their radio program Pop Go the Beatles on June 1st.  Of course, the celeste does not appear on this version, but Harrison does add a little extra flourish at the end of his solo and the group brings the number to a complete finish instead of fading out as they did on the record.  This can be heard on Live at the BBC, including a wonderfully silly introduction by host Lee Peters using his "famous James Mason impersonation voice" at the instigation of the Beatles.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Ask Me Why

Even at the time of its release, Ask Me Why sounded like an old-fashioned song, a delightful throwback demonstrating the love the Beatles had for a broad array of popular music.  Yet the inspiration for principal composer John Lennon was actually What's So Good About Goodbye, a recent release by the Miracles on the American record label Tamla Motown.  Lennon wrote the song around April of 1962 with help from Paul, then taught it to George and Pete.

The group felt confident enough about the composition to perform it at their initial session at EMI's Abbey Road Studios on June 6th.  Only days later, on June 11th, they played it for BBC Radio before a live audience in Manchester, thus significantly making it their first original song to be broadcast.  Although it was not chosen to be recorded at the September sessions for their first single, it was still in contention when they reported to the studio on November 26th to record their second.  By this point, the band (now with Ringo in the lineup) had been playing the number in their live repertoire for months and so, after spending quite a bit of time working on the A-side Please Please Me, they perfected Ask Me Why in only six takes - live with no overdubs.

The song is a somewhat complex little crooner.  John's voice is a bit raw at times, yet he also has some lovely falsetto moments, and Paul and George alternate between joining him for some three-part harmonies or supplying backing vocals.  George's lead guitar is busy throughout providing some unobtrusive but beautiful fills while Ringo plays a Latin-flavored drum pattern also inspired by the Miracles' recording and probably not much different from the way Pete Best originally did it.

Before the record was even released, the boys played it at their final dates at the Star Club in Hamburg, West Germany.  The performance on December 31st was taped and has been widely available in various packages for many years.  Paul's bass is more prominent on the version I have, they play at a faster tempo, George's fills are less elegant and they repeat the entire second verse, which does not occur on the record.

After the single was released on January 11th, 1963, the song was played only sparingly as Lennon and McCartney's songwriting abilities rapidly developed and newer material gained favor.  The final performance was recorded on September 3rd, 1963 for their radio program Pop Go the Beatles and is available on On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2.  This lovely rendition is on par with the original, though it is truncated, omitting the repeat of the bridge, and John holds out the word "mine" instead of the usual "mi-yi-yi-yi-yine," confirming that it had been some time since they had last visited the number. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Any Time At All

Working out an arrangement as Dick James and George Martin look on
The first few days of June 1964 saw the band quickly recording several numbers to finish off the EP Long Tall Sally and the non-soundtrack side of the album A Hard Day's Night.  Four titles were started and completed on June 1st.  On the afternoon of the 2nd, the band began to work on this Lennon composition but, as with Paul's And I Love Her back in February, it was lacking a bridge.  After seven takes, they decided to set the song aside and dashed off McCartney's Things We Said Today, then broke for dinner.

Returning for an evening session, they recorded Lennon's When I Get Home before resuming their efforts on Any Time At All.  In this instance, it was Paul who worked out a series of piano chords to serve as a middle eight.  In the master version, take eleven, this section features Paul on piano and George on guitar playing this chord progression with little embellishment.  It is generally assumed that some new lyrics were to be written and overdubbed onto this sequence but, as it happened, Ringo took ill the next day and all work on the album was deemed to be complete.

This song of devotion showcases John shouting out the title in the refrains but adopting a soothing voice for the verses, a model he would revisit in 1969 for Don't Let Me Down.  His lead vocal is double-tracked for effect here as he overlaps the first and second half of the verses by skipping a different word or two in each line to keep the lyrics moving forward.  The only other voice heard is Paul's echoing the title in the refrains.

Some sources claim that Lennon actually had written a third and a fourth verse that were considered unnecessary and not recorded, even quoting some of the supposed lyrics.  Given the need for a bridge and the relatively few mentions of this, I wonder how reliable those sources are.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Another Girl

On February 15th, 1965 the Beatles met at Abbey Road Studios to begin work on a batch of songs for the soundtrack of their second feature film.  The afternoon session was spent on Ticket to Ride, which featured Paul playing lead guitar.  In the evening, the group started rehearsing Another Girl, a song that Paul had written only days earlier while on holiday in Tunisia.  Their new method of working on this day saw them perfect the basic track through much in-studio rehearsal (a luxury no other act was afforded) before attempting an actual take.  Thus, take one was all that was necessary for the master.

Overdubs included a double-tracked lead vocal by Paul and backing vocals by John and George.  A good deal of time was then spent on George trying to do a flourish using the tremolo arm of his guitar for the end of the song.  The seventh attempt (out of ten) was deemed best.  The following day, however, Paul elected to do it himself, even adding a lead guitar passage throughout the song, thus usurping George's role for the second time in two days.

The song itself is a rather lightweight piece, with lyrics that are truly callous in the manner that the singer dismisses one girl in favor of another.  Though McCartney also offered Tell Me What You See for the soundtrack, Another Girl was probably chosen instead due to it being a more uptempo number.

On February 27th, less than two weeks after recording the song, the boys were in the Bahamas miming to it.  It is the final new number to be introduced, appearing quite late in the film.  The sequence shows the band playing on a reef and cavorting with some girls in the water, with Paul occasionally using a girl in a bikini as a stand-in for his bass guitar.  This was the last time the Beatles would ever perform the song in any way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

And Your Bird Can Sing

John Lennon could be brutal in his assessment of any piece of work, even his own, and he never had a good word to say about this composition when asked about it in later years, dismissing it on various occasions as a "horror" and a "throwaway."  It's difficult to understand those remarks, even if he was merely referring to the lyrics, which are a bit sloppy in places, especially in the use of the word "awoken" to force a rhyme.  Yet this is the same man who felt that Be-Bop-A-Lula was one of the best rock and roll songs ever written and who often stated that the overall sound of a recording was more important than the words.  Given those standards, And Your Bird Can Sing is a fine piece of work indeed, with its sonic wash of electric guitars and rich vocal harmonies.

The Beatles first recorded the song on April 20th, 1966 - only a few weeks into sessions for the album Revolver.  Right from the introduction, the two takes laid down on this date sound very much in the style of the Byrds, with double-tracked ringing guitars.  Take two, which can be heard on Anthology 2, was considered to be the master and given numerous overdubs.  While the version presented is most notable for the giggling hysterics of John and Paul as they attempt to add more vocals, this take is a great look into an alternate arrangement of the song.  The long, winding guitar riff is mostly set, but the placement of the third verse and the instrumental break is different, the first verse is repeated then followed by a break and a nifty bass run by Paul before the guitars return and the boys start whistling over an intended fadeout section.

Unhappy with this version for some reason (not, of course, for the giggling overdub which would naturally have been deleted), John decided that a remake was necessary.  Thus, on April 26th, they began anew at take three, laying down several attempts of a new arrangement.  Take ten proved to be the best (out of thirteen total) and overdubbing began.  The guitar riff is extended and even more strident here.  Whereas John and Paul sang the earlier version as a duet, John sings alone in most places now (though his voice is treated with ADT, artificial double tracking) and more forcefully throughout.  And the tempo is a bit slower yet still driving forward at all times.  This proved to be the master used on the US album "Yesterday"...and Today and the UK album Revolver.

Though the Beatles set out on one final tour after these sessions, neither this song nor any other song from Revolver was added to their live act. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

And I Love Her

It's a bit surprising that when it came time to record a fresh batch of songs for the soundtrack of the group's first feature film, Paul McCartney only brought in one new composition.  Yes, his hit Can't Buy Me Love was used in the movie - twice - but it had been released as a single well in advance and was not originally intended for the film.  Yet, while John Lennon clearly dominated the soundtrack in terms of the quantity of songs, the quality of Paul's offering cannot be denied.  And I Love Her is one of his minor gems - his first ballad, in fact.

The song was still unfinished, however, when the Beatles first attempted to record it on February 25th, 1964.  Take two, the only complete take that day, can be heard on Anthology 1.  While John is already playing his rhythm part on acoustic guitar, George's lead is electric and Ringo is on his full drum kit.  It wasn't until midway through the session on the following day that Ringo switched to bongos.  Producer George Martin and music publisher Dick James thought the song was pleasant but repetitive, so they urged Paul to flesh it out a bit.  During a subsequent tea break, a bridge was quickly written by John and Paul and added to the song.  This middle eight plus George's simple but sublime work on a classical acoustic guitar provided the perfect final touches.  The master take was achieved on the 27th with Paul double-tracking his vocal line and an overdubbing of claves played by Ringo.

The song is used only once during one of the television rehearsal sequences in the middle of the film A Hard Day's Night.  It is played at a slightly slower tempo and Paul sings solo...mostly - he is still curiously double-tracked in places.

The boys only played the song one more time.  They recorded it for the BBC radio program Top Gear on July 14th, returning to the original instrumentation of electric guitar and drums on that occasion.  This version can be heard on On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2.  Some sources claim that And I Love Her was part of the 5-song set performed live on the television variety show Blackpool Night Out on July 19th, 1964 but a listen to the surviving audio tape of that program disproves that claim.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

All You Need Is Love

All You Need Is Love is best understood when considered as a song to be seen and heard by the entire world on the first global satellite TV show ever presented.  When the Beatles were chosen to represent the UK on the program Our World, they were told to keep the message simple.  John Lennon did just that, writing lyrics that he felt could not possibly be misinterpreted as anything other than a worldwide call for peace and love.

The group was naturally nervous about performing live for the first time in almost a year, let alone appearing before the largest audience ever assembled at the time.  Leaving nothing to chance, it was decided that a backing track was necessary to ground the performance, thus making the TV spot a fascinating glimpse into an actual work-in-progress.

Work began on the backing track on June 14th, 1967 at Olympic Sound Studios.  John banged out the basic chords of the song on a harpsichord, Paul played a double bass and George picked up a violin for the first time in his life.  Amazingly, all of these parts were kept in the final mix of the recording.  Overdubs of more conventional instrumentation and layers of backing vocals were added at Abbey Road Studios over a number of days before June 25th, the date of the broadcast.

It is worth the effort to seek out the Beatles' segment from the original Our World broadcast on YouTube.  It is presented in glorious black and white and lasts just over six minutes in length, starting with the boys in mid-song adding more backing vocals.  A camera in the control room then picks up producer George Martin and engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush as Martin cuts the singing and orders the tape rewound and the orchestra brought into the studio.  TV announcer Steve Race makes such silly comments as "...you'll notice the musicians are not rock and roll youngsters.  The Beatles get on best with symphony men."  Once all is set, the tape plays the backing track and the magic begins.

The pack of friends and rock luminaries sitting on the floor around the Beatles look rather bored during the early parts of the proceedings, but once the orchestra starts playing Martin's clever score and the singalong begins, the party atmosphere kicks in and the Summer of Love officially has its anthem.

Later that night, John rerecorded his lead vocal, Ringo added a drum roll to the introduction and a new mix was made so that the song could be rush-released as a single.  With such unprecedented publicity, it came as no surprise that the record was an instant worldwide number one bestseller.

Friday, September 16, 2016

All Together Now

After months of recording for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles immediately began working on some other projects before that monumental album was even released.  One of these projects required coming up with a few original songs for the soundtrack of an animated feature film based on their 1966 hit Yellow Submarine.  The group's manager Brian Epstein had worked out this agreement with United Artists in the hopes of finally fulfilling their three-picture deal with the studio, yet the boys still agreed to it only reluctantly.

Instead of spending days or even weeks on an individual track, as they had done on most of the tracks for Sgt. Pepper, they quickly dashed off a couple numbers to satisfy the film's producers.  On May 11th, 1967, they started, completed and mixed for mono the Lennon-McCartney collaboration Baby You're a Rich Man in six hours at Olympic Sound Studios (though intended for the film, and briefly used in it, this song soon became the B-side of a single and never made it onto the original soundtrack album).  The next day, May 12th, they reconvened at Abbey Road Studios to record a new McCartney offering.

All Together Now sounds deceptively simple, especially given its lyrics, but the gradual acceleration of the song had the potential to be quite tricky.  Yet the Beatles and their studio guests who joined in the singalong pulled it off in only nine takes, plus overdubs.  The recording was completed and mixed for mono within a mere five and a half hours.  This is all the more remarkable considering that producer George Martin was not even present to oversee the proceedings - engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush manned the control room alone that night.

The song is used early in the film soon after the submarine voyage commences.  As brief as the song is, an even shorter version of it is used at the end of the movie.  Though they do not actually sing it or even mime to it, the Beatles met at Twickenham Film Studios on January 25th, 1968 to film a short live action sequence to set up the reprise of the song.   

Monday, September 12, 2016

All My Loving

All My Loving follows All I've Got to Do alphabetically in the Beatles catalog and in sequence on both the UK album With the Beatles and the US album Meet the Beatles!  Unlike the song which precedes it, this number was added to the group's live act and it figures prominently in the band's initial impression on American audiences.

The composition is by McCartney and it was the last song to be recorded on the very productive day of July 30th, 1963.  Overdubs allowed Paul to double-track most of his vocal and harmonize with himself on the final verse (in live performances, George would sing the melody line in the final verse, freeing Paul to sing the high harmony).  He plays a walking bass line while John delivers a fast, relentless rhythm guitar part and George adds a country-flavored guitar solo which had been worked out in advance.

The lyrics are a variation on the tried-and-true rock and roll theme of a musician staying faithful to his love while on the road - ironic, of course, given the stories of the Beatles' exploits on tour, though these were hushed up at the time.  This was the first of many songs that Paul wrote inspired by his relationship with actress Jane Asher.

The boys first performed the song in the UK on the TV show Thank Your Lucky Stars almost a month before the album With the Beatles was released.  It soon became a staple of their act for the next year.  Of course, the most famous performance was as the opening number of their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964.  Although the group had been featured on US television programs on tape a few times leading up to this live show, this was surely the first time that the greatest number of Americans saw and heard the band play, and it is still considered to be one of the most historic moments in television history.  This performance is presented on Anthology 1, including the end of Sullivan's introduction which is immediately drowned out by the screaming audience.

Another performance is available on Live at the BBC, recorded shortly after the boys returned from America and broadcast on a special Easter edition of their own program From Us to You.  There is no studio audience, thus this version is somewhat lacking in excitement, yet this performance and the Ed Sullivan version are remarkably consistent when compared with the original recording.

The exception is from the August 23rd, 1964 concert on Live at the Hollywood Bowl which is played at a breakneck pace.  This fine package, maligned and neglected for many years, is now available in a remastered edition and is receiving rave reviews.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

All I've Got to Do

The Beatles had recorded most of their first album Please Please Me in one incredibly productive day in February of 1963.  By the middle of that year, they were the toast of Britain and there was no need to rush the production of their second LP.  Two sessions in July yielded eight fresh recordings, but the group's hectic schedule kept them from returning to the studio until September 11th.  On that date, they began work on three new titles, but only this one would be complete by day's end.

The master of this fine Lennon composition was laid down in fifteen takes, eight of them being false starts and one being an overdub.  This is fairly remarkable for a tune that the other three Beatles had presumably never heard before.  John played the song for them and they then figured out their arrangement and perfected it, all in the space of about two and a half hours.  This was the dawn of the boys becoming recording artists instead of performers.  Like a few of the other original compositions on this album, All I've Got to Do would not make it into their live act.  In fact, apart from their work on the song on this day, they never played the song again.

That is a shame because the song itself is a hidden gem, little known to those unfamiliar with the band's early albums.  John stated in interviews over the years that he was consciously trying to write in the style of Smokey Robinson here, but the song also bears resemblance to two cover versions of tunes he had sung on the group's debut album.  Anna (Go to Him) and Baby It's You both featured similar heartfelt vocal performances from John and variations on the jerky, stop/start patterns that he incorporated into this composition.  Ringo executes those tricky patterns and leads the band through the uneven number of measures (a Lennon trademark over the years) deftly, though achieving that may account for the high percentage of false starts.

It is worth noting that there is some disagreement concerning the date that this song was written.  A few sources claim that Lennon actually wrote it back in 1961 and even had it copyrighted at that time, but most believe that it was composed close to the date of its recording in '63.  This certainly seems more likely since Paul in particular would not have been unaware of the song if it had been sitting around unused for a few years.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Act Naturally

In June of 1965, the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on the non-soundtrack side of the album Help! and Ringo still did not have a vocal spotlight.  Months earlier, John and Paul had written a song for their drummer that might have actually been slated for the film.  The problem was that it was downright dreadful.  If You've Got Trouble was only given one take plus overdubs before it was scrapped.  The lyrics were lame and the performance by the band was uncharacteristically clunky considering the fact that the boys usually churned out a few masters every day at this point in their career.

On June 17th, the final day of recording for the album, Ringo chose to do a country and western tune called Act Naturally.  His previous two featured numbers had been covers of rockabilly songs by Carl Perkins, but this was pure C&W - a song that Buck Owens had taken to the number one spot on the country chart.

Of course, everyone was in on the joke.  Ringo had been singled out by many critics as the best actor in the group after his performance in A Hard Day's Night.  Thus, the new film had deliberately centered around Ringo, though his role was really not any bigger than those of the other three Beatles.  The choice of Act Naturally was a perfect tongue-in-cheek response to all of that attention, not unlike the group's witty retorts at their press conferences.

Yet, while the choice of the song may have been a joke, the recording was not.  Every member of the band, especially Ringo and George, had a great love of rockabilly and country, and it shows in their earnest, straightforward approach to the material.  George's twangy guitar and Paul's high vocal harmonies are delightful, presented without a hint of irony in them.

The song was first issued in August of 1965, placed at the top of side two on the UK version of Help!, thus letting discerning fans in on the joke by making it the first thing they would hear after listening to the soundtrack numbers on side one.  In the US, the song was held in reserve for release as a single in September.  Ringo had been immensely popular with American fans since the dawn of Beatlemania in early '64 and Capitol Records was planning on giving him the A-side of the single, though that honor ultimately went to a little ditty called Yesterday.

The group added the song to their live act (the only song they ever added which they had not performed in their pre-fame days according to Dave Rybaczewski in his excellent in-depth story on beatlesebooks.com) for the remainder of 1965.  You can find the very first performance at Blackpool Night Out on YouTube.  Ringo introduces himself in a typically self-deprecating manner.  "Here he is, all off-key and nervous, singing Act Naturally - Ringo!"

Monday, August 29, 2016

The songs from A to Z - Across the Universe

Cover of the 1969 charity album featuring the first release of Across the Universe
In search of a new topic for my renamed blog (I finally realized that The Beatles in Mark's Life was a little too precious), I have decided to go to a tactic used by many other writers and look at the group's recording output in alphabetical order.  This will take me out of my usual chronological pattern and necessitate jumping back and forth throughout the band's career.  In each instance, I will take a look at every recording I have of each particular song to give either a sense of the composition's development or simply the differences and similarities of the various versions available.  And, while some entries will be rather lengthy, others will be quite brief (there's only so much one can say about Wild Honey Pie).

For starters, we have a song that has already had its own entry; a composition that has spawned numerous versions, most from the same basic recording - Across the Universe.

The sessions for this number took place on February 4th and 8th, 1968.  Lennon had brought this composition in as a potential single to be released while the Beatles were in India studying Transcendental Meditation.  He was never entirely satisfied with the group's recording of his song, however, and opted to relegate it to the Abbey Road archives for the time being, thus allowing McCartney's Lady Madonna to serve as the in absentia single.

The final track on Anthology 2 is take two of this song, giving us a tantalizing sense of a more ethereal sound than that of the finished recording.  John's guide vocal reveals that he had yet to figure out his breathing pattern in the long, tricky phrases he had written.

Take seven, the master, was markedly different (and, in my judgement, not an improvement over the earlier take), featuring tamboura, tone-pedal guitar, backing vocals by John, Paul and George and some additional high harmonies provided by Gayleen Pease and Lizzie Bravo, two Apple Scruffs, the nickname given to the ever-present fans outside of Abbey Road Studios.

It just so happened that comedian Spike Milligan was present as a guest of George Martin at the February 8th session.  Milligan was a founding member of The Goons, whose recordings had been produced by Martin, and the Beatles were huge fans of the groundbreaking comic troupe.  Milligan was assembling a charity album on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund and asked if he could use the unreleased song on it, a request which Lennon readily okayed.

That album would not appear for almost two years.  (In the interim, the Beatles almost released the song as a bonus track on a Yellow Submarine EP, but that package never saw the light of day.)  In October of 1969, Martin prepared the recording for the charity album, adding wildlife sound effects to the intro and outro, as well as speeding up the entire track.  Though Lennon was not present at that time, it can only be assumed that he approved these changes.

On December 12th, 1969, the album No One's Gonna Change Our World - its title coming from a variation on Lennon's lyric - was issued in the UK.  It was not released in the US, though the new song by the Beatles did get some airplay.  Frankly, it sounded like an odd throwback to the summer of '67 (remember how quickly music progressed in the 60's) and fans could be forgiven if they thought the female harmonies had been provided by Yoko Ono.

Less than a month after this release, Glyn Johns was at Olympic Sound Studios preparing his second attempt at a Get Back album.  Since Lennon was seen briefly strumming Across the Universe in the upcoming documentary, manager Allen Klein mandated that the song had to be included on the tie-in album.  Johns therefore returned to the same master used by Martin and stripped it of the wildlife sound effects, the tone pedal guitar part and the Beatles' own backing vocals, while keeping the high female voices, though these are pushed somewhat to the background.  Best of all, he returned the recording to its original speed.

The Get Back album was never officially released and only a few months later, the same material was handed over to Phil Spector to produce what would now be known as an album titled Let It Be.  Spector deleted all of the backing vocal parts, reinstated some of the tone pedal guitar and added a massive orchestra and choir.  And he decided to slow down the original recording.  This is the version that is by far the most well-known.  Having just listened to all of them in order of their release, I can say that this one sounds absolutely lethargic in comparison to the others, yet Lennon always declared that he was happy with Spector's work.

Finally, there is the redundant Let It Be...Naked version from 2003.  Producers Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse start off on the right foot by using the original tempo.  They also eliminate the tone pedal guitar and all backing voices, but they slowly add echo and a strange background noise that may be one of two backwards overdubs made on February 4th, 1968 but not used on the master. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sir George Martin 1926-2016

Would we even know who the Beatles were if not for their legendary producer George Martin?  Like the group's manager Brian Epstein, Martin was the right man in the right place at just the right time.  No other producer would have given the band so much freedom from the onset - allowing them to record their own compositions, not establishing one member as the front man thus giving their music multiple voices, and always gently prodding them forward both as songwriters and as recording artists.

While Martin's arrangements in the latter portion of the group's career are rightfully well-known, he also played keyboards on several of their early tracks, augmenting their sound.  Some were overdubbed as on Misery and Baby It's You, and some were live in the studio with the band as on the astonishing one take performance of Long Tall Sally.

His orchestrations of Lennon/McCartney originals for the soundtrack of A Hard Day's Night are a real treat.  If you own a copy of the film or the United Artists album, listen to his hip 1964 takes on the title track and I Should Have Known Better.  Even better are the kitschy versions of Ringo's Theme (This Boy) and And I Love Her.  Though he had been working with the Beatles for over a year, his arrangements are still more in line with the standard Hollywood treatment of rock and roll music at the time.

In early 1965, when John chose not to play harmonica on the Dylanesque tune You've Got to Hide Your Love Away and asked Martin for something in its place, the producer brought in flautist Johnnie Scott, and his role changed forever.  He cemented that role a few months later with his brilliant score for quartet on the song Yesterday.  Over the next few years, the arrangements became more complex and often experimental in nature, with the master now sometimes learning from his students.  It is to Martin's eternal credit that he not only went along for that ride, but he actively encouraged it.

He lamented in numerous interviews in later years the fact that he frequently gave short shrift to George Harrison's work, yet he and the junior Beatle collaborated amazingly well on the remarkable Within You Without You, creating one of the longest instrumental breaks in the group's entire catalog - a true East meets West dialogue at the dawn of what we now refer to as world music.  Martin continued to use the bending of notes by Western classical instruments in much of his score for the animated film Yellow Submarine.

As tensions within the Beatles mounted during the endless sessions for the "White Album," the producer began staying away, often leaving the group under the watchful eye of young Chris Thomas.  And during the brief but tumultuous Get Back sessions, the task of production usually fell to Glyn Johns.  It was only after a number of tracks had already been recorded for Abbey Road that Martin was asked back to join in one final push for glory, including his admonition to Paul to "think symphonically" when compiling the medley for side two of that album.

Though he worked with many other artists over his long and distinguished career, both before and after his time with the Beatles, it was the unparalleled creative explosion that he oversaw with the boys from Liverpool that truly gives him such an indelible footprint in music history.  His place is secure as long as people continue to appreciate the act we've known for all these years.