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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dig It

The Beatles were masters of producing well-crafted, highly-polished recordings.  Even in their most experimental works, an overarching structure was usually evident.  When it came to loose jamming, however, their results were often lacking, especially when compared to the inventive instrumental byplay exhibited by many of their freewheeling contemporaries.

This is not to say that they did not let off steam by jamming on occasion.  I have a bootleg of them going on at length after a take of She's A Woman in 1964.  12 Bar Original was a failed attempt at an instrumental album track from the Rubber Soul sessions.  Following the months of concentrated work on Sgt. Pepper, they sometimes wasted entire evenings in the studio during the spring of 1967 playing long unstructured jams, much to the dismay of producer George Martin and other Abbey Road staff members.

During the Get Back sessions, the band and their guest Billy Preston frequently lapsed into idly playing many of their favorite oldies.  But on January 24th, 1969, they did something completely uncharacteristic and launched into an attempt at an extended jam called Dig It led by John.  This version featured a slide guitar, although it would be completely forgettable if not for John's comment, "That was Can You Dig It by Georgie Wood.  And now we'd like to do 'ark the Angels Come," at the end.

Two days later, they had another go at it with John and George on their guitars, Ringo on drums, Paul on piano and Billy on electric piano.  Linda Eastman's 6-year-old daughter Heather joins in vocally early on and George Martin handles a percussive shaker.  Otherwise, the group rambles on tediously for twelve and a half minutes playing the same old riff with John ad libbing and Paul adding a half-hearted, out of tune complementary vocal.  On film, George and Billy, sitting side by side, do seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

When assembling both Get Back albums, producer/engineer Glyn Johns used the final four minutes of the second version, then tacked on Lennon's comment from version one.  This preceded Let It Be on his proposed May '69 line-up and The Long and Winding Road on his revised January '70 line-up.  For the Let It Be album, producer Phil Spector wisely trimmed down this section to less than a minute, using what is truly the only clever wordplay from the entire number.  He then used Lennon's comment to segue directly into Let It Be.

In 2003, the Let It Be...Naked album stuck the final half minute of version one, which includes John's now-famous comment at the end, onto the bonus disc Fly on the Wall.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dig a Pony

An assistant kneels before John with the lyrics to Dig a Pony
When the Beatles reported to Twickenham Film Studios on January 2nd, 1969 to begin rehearsals for the Get Back project, Dig a Pony was one of the first songs that they worked on.  On the one hand, it was pretty much standard procedure for the group to concentrate on a Lennon composition at the outset of sessions for a new album.  On the other hand, this was surprising given that Lennon brought very little new material to this entire endeavor.

Once the sessions moved to Savile Row on January 22nd, the song was well-rehearsed as you can hear on Anthology 3.  By this time George's guitar solo is prearranged, something that had also been standard procedure from early on in the group's recording career.  Either John flubs some lyrics near the end or he had not quite finished writing the final verse yet, but otherwise the arrangement is set.

Much the same can be said for the runthrough on the 24th, which Glyn Johns used for his Get Back albums.  The erstwhile producer tacked on Lennon's "We'll do Dig a Pony straight into I've Got a Fever" remark from the 22nd onto the beginning of this track.  And John fumbles the lyrics at the same point as he did on the 22nd.  It should also be noted that the "All I want is..." phrase at the top and bottom of the song is in place on both of these versions.

The ultimate performance of the song was, of course, from the famous rooftop concert on January 30th.  The boys only did the number once in the middle of their set, but they were clearly warmed up and fully enjoying the moment by the time they attacked it.  John made sure that an assistant held the lyrics up for him to see as he played and sang what is easily the best version of the song.  Phil Spector wisely chose it for the Let It Be album.  He lopped off the "All I want is..." bits, but he did keep in the false start and a little of the chatter at the end.

When the Let It Be...Naked album was assembled in 2003, the rooftop performance was once again chosen.  The ambient chatter before and after is gone and, strangely, Spector's omission of the "All I want is..." phrases is used.

I have to admit that this has always been one of my least favorite Beatles tracks.  Though I can now appreciate that the arrangement is quite tight, it always struck me as being rather sloppy.  And the wordplay feels lacking somehow when compared to other Lennon compositions such as I Am the Walrus, Glass Onion or even Cry Baby Cry.  Had the group not been committed to doing a live album with no overdubs, it would have been interesting to hear how this song might have been more fully developed in the studio.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Devil in Her Heart

In this one instance, it can truly be argued that had the Beatles not recorded Devil in Her Heart there is a good chance that the song would be lost in obscurity.  And I daresay that this track is probably unfamiliar to most casual fans of the Beatles, as well.

Devil in His Heart was the B-side of the one and only single released by a girl group out of Michigan called the Donays, who soon thereafter broke up.  It appeared on a small Detroit label, was picked up by a New York label and even made it onto the Oriole Records label in the UK, though it never made the charts anywhere.  The NEMS record store in Liverpool, however, which was owned by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, stocked at least one copy of everything that was released, so the single was sitting in the bins and just happened to catch the attention of the band, who were constantly on the lookout for new material.

The boys' affinity for girl group numbers had led them to a great vehicle for George.  By October of 1962, the Beatles were working the song into their live act, but when it came time to record their first album in February of '63, their more recent discovery Chains resulted in this song being overlooked.

The number came back to mind, however, on July 16th, 1963 when the band recorded an astonishing eighteen titles for editions eight, nine and ten of their BBC radio program Pop Go the Beatles.  They were constantly mining the riches of their pre-fame stage repertoire for these shows, playing songs that had influenced them alongside their own current hits.  The recording made on this date of Devil in Her Heart, which is available on the EP Baby It's You, seems to indicate that they had not performed the song for some time, as they mess up the lyrics more than once.

Only two days later, they were scheduled to begin work on their second album and, with this song now fresh in their minds, they decided to commit it to tape.  A mere three takes were all that were required to achieve the basic track, with everyone playing their usual instruments and George, John and Paul singing live.  George then overdubbed a few guitar bits and double-tracked his lead vocal during the verses, and Ringo added maracas.

Performances of the song continued to be rare, though, with Chains, Roll Over Beethoven and even Do You Want to Know a Secret more often serving as George's vocal spotlight.  The group did return to the number one more time for the BBC on September 3rd, 1963 - a date when they went themselves one better and recorded nineteen titles for editions thirteen, fourteen and fifteen of Pop Go the Beatles.  This performance is available on the collection On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Dear Prudence

Prudence Farrow, Ringo and Maureen Starkey
Like The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, the song Dear Prudence was written by John Lennon about an incident that occurred during the group's stay in Rishikesh, India.  Prudence Farrow, the younger sister of actress Mia, had spent days locked away in her bungalow meditating until John and George had persuaded her to come out.  Also at this time, John was learning the finger-picking guitar technique of Donovan Leitch from the singer-songwriter himself and his friend Gypsy Dave.  These elements combined to help Lennon write one of the most beautiful compositions of his career, either as a member of the Beatles or as a solo artist.

Sadly, Ringo did not play on the track, as it was recorded during the two week period when he quit the Beatles in the midst of the sessions for the "White Album."  John, Paul and George had already completed McCartney's song Back in the USSR in the drummer's absence and, on August 28th, 1968, the trio reported to Trident Studios to take advantage of its eight-track capabilities and begin work on Lennon's composition.

This thirteen hour session resulted in only one take but, as Mark Lewisohn points out in his book The Beatles: Recording Sessions, this is deceptive, as it must have taken numerous attempts to arrive at this one take.  John perfected his finger-picking guitar line, George provided a lead guitar part and Paul played the drums.  John and George overdubbed at least one more layer of guitars onto the one take.

The work continued at Trident on the 29th with John singing and double-tracking his lead vocal and Paul adding his bass line.  The backing vocals featured the unusual line-up of John, Paul, George, their assistant Mal Evans, Paul's cousin John and Apple artist Jackie Lomax.  Handclaps and a tambourine completed the day's work.  Paul provided two more overdubs on the 30th - a piano part and, reportedly, a flugelhorn, which I am still unable to pick out in the final mix.

Starting with John's gorgeous opening guitar picking, each component of this recording drives the song forward as it is brought in, helping it to build in intensity until it reaches its peak then quickly reverts back to the opening guitar phrase as it fades away.  Paul's drumming is an essential part of this, especially in the climactic fourth verse where he demonstrates a touch of the great feel that Ringo was always justifiably famous for.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Day Tripper

Just days after starting sessions for the album Rubber Soul, the pressure was already on Lennon and McCartney to come up with a new single.  With only a few compositions in hand, they turned to a song that John had begun, finished it off at his house and brought it into the studio on October 16th, 1965.  It took hours for the Beatles to work out the somewhat tricky arrangement before recording commenced.

Once the tapes were rolling, however, the boys needed a mere three takes before they had the basic track.  (And take three was the only complete take - takes one and two had both broken down.)  George plays the signature guitar riff which continues throughout the song, with John, Paul and Ringo playing the usual instrumentation of rhythm guitar, bass and drums.  John and Paul then added their joint lead vocals and double-tracked those vocals with George occasionally joining in.  In addition, George overdubbed another guitar part, including a solo, and John played tambourine.

On November 1st or 2nd, the group mimed a performance of the number, complete with go-go dancers during the intro, for the television special The Music of Lennon and McCartney.  On November 23rd, they went a step further, filming multiple mimed performances of several of their hit songs to be sent to television programs worldwide in lieu of live appearances.  Among these were two standard versions of Day Tripper with the group in their usual formation, plus a rather silly one in which they stand behind cardboard cut-outs of a train and a plane.  Ringo even takes out a saw and cuts away parts of the train in the middle of the song.

Day Tripper did make it into the band's live act for their final tour of Britain in December.  They returned to the number on May 1st, 1966 for their last appearance at the New Musical Express Annual Poll-Winners' All-Star Concert in Wembley.  And it remained in their stage act for their final world and North American tours, including their swan song at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Cry Baby Cry

In his authorized biography of the Beatles, Hunter Davies describes a conversation with John Lennon about songwriting in which John revealed that he had an idea for a song based on an ad jingle that went "cry baby cry, make your mother buy."  This conversation took place some time before the group's trip to India in early 1968.  Donovan Leitch recalls that John returned to the song while in Rishikesh, working on the Lewis Carroll-like verses.  It was definitely finished by May and was, in fact, the very first demo recorded at George's house before the Beatles began sessions for the "White Album."

With so many songs having been written in India, a month and a half went by before the band returned to this composition to make a proper recording.  During an afternoon session on July 15th, they put some finishing touches on both Revolution and Ob-la-di Ob-la-da.  After a break, the lads reconvened at 9pm to rehearse Cry Baby Cry.  They spent six hours and as many as thirty takes getting the arrangement that John wanted, then broke for the day.  Unbelievably, these rehearsal tapes were re-used over the following days, wiping out some potentially fascinating glimpses into the process.

The rehearsals did pay off, however, as the official take one, recorded the next day and available on Anthology 3, demonstrates.  John sings a guide vocal and plays acoustic guitar, and Paul and Ringo play bass and drums as usual.  There is a brief instrumental introduction that would be eliminated by the master take, but many of the subtle touches that enhance the menacing mood of the piece are already in place.  By take ten, the master, George was adding some occasional notes from an organ to the mix.  Overdubs of producer George Martin on harmonium and John on piano were also added on this evening.

Overdubbing continued on July 18th, including a new lead vocal by John, backing vocals by Paul, a bit of lead guitar from George, tambourine from Ringo and more harmonium by George Martin.  The group also recorded some tea party sound effects heard during the third verse.  By this point, the song was considered complete, yet on September 17th, with eight-track recording now available at Abbey Road Studios, an eight-track copy of the master was made in preparation for more possible overdubs.  None were ever made.

During the twenty-four hour session on October 16th and 17th when John, Paul and George Martin determined the running order of the album, they made the inspired decision to tack an uncredited snippet from McCartney (generally known as "Can You Take Me Back") onto the abrupt end of Cry Baby Cry.  This piece perfectly matches the haunting mood of Lennon's song and creates a clever segue into the sound collage Revolution 9.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

Richard Cooke III, his mother Nancy and the tiger
The time that the Beatles spent in Rishikesh, India in early 1968 was a particularly fertile one for the songwriting skills of John, Paul and George.  The hours of meditation plus many more hours sitting around with their acoustic guitars yielded a bumper crop of songs that would result in a double album later in the year.  John, however, also derived inspiration from a few incidents that occurred during his seven-week stay, including a tiger hunt by an American who came to visit his mother at the ashram.  Lennon lampooned the macho ritual by turning it into a jolly cartoon singalong with a cardboard hero.

The group met at George's house at the end of May to record demos of all of the songs they had ready to go once sessions for the new album commenced.  The demo for The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill  reveals that John had the composition pretty much set, yet the band did not get around to actually recording the song until months later when the sessions for the "White Album" were nearly over.

In fact, realizing that the finish line was in sight by the evening of October 8th, Lennon pushed the group to complete two of his songs in a marathon sixteen-hour session.  The bulk of the time was allotted to I'm So Tired before they turned their attention to Bungalow Bill around 4am.  With John and George on acoustic guitars, Paul on bass and Ringo on drums, only three takes were recorded before John was satisfied with the basic track.

They then moved on to overdubs of John playing an organ, Ringo shaking a tambourine and Paul adding more bass.  When John recorded his lead vocal, the informal atmosphere of the session was preserved by having everyone in the room join in the chorus, including all four Beatles, Yoko and Ringo's wife Maureen.  Furthermore, John had Yoko sing a solo line and double one of his lines.

George Martin was back in the producer's chair, but young Chris Thomas, who had produced several tracks for the album while Martin was away on holiday, was present and was corralled into playing the most interesting overdubs on the track.  The Mellotron, that fascinating early version of the synthesizer, was used throughout the song, sounding like a mandolin in the verses and like a trombone during the repeated choruses at the end.  In addition, the intricate Spanish guitar part which opens the song came from a tape heard when depressing one of the Mellotron's keys, making it one of the earliest examples of sampling on record.