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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single All You Need Is Love required a B-side soon thereafter, this recording was chosen for that purpose and thus was withdrawn from consideration for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.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.