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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.