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Friday, May 26, 2017

Drive My Car

In his 1988 book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley writes: "Drive My Car has the smooth bravado of a Jack Nicholson performance, grinning on the surface with wheels spinning like mad underneath."  I have used the first half of this quote before in my 2011 look at side one of Rubber Soul.  I repeat it here because it remains for me one of the most accurate and concise descriptions of any song in the entire Beatles catalog.

The smoothness of this track is due in great part to the slick line played in tandem by George on guitar and Paul on bass.  George had been listening to Donald "Duck" Dunn's bass line on the Otis Redding version of Respect and suggested a slight variation on it for Paul's consideration.  The two of them worked it out and, with Ringo on drums, attempted four takes - only the final one was complete.

Overdubs then began with John and Paul sharing the lead vocal and Ringo on tambourine and cowbell.  Paul also added a subtly dragging piano part on each chorus and played slide guitar for the solo.  The final touch had John, Paul and George providing the "beep beep"s.  All of this was accomplished on October 13th, 1965, which was only the second day of sessions for the new album.

McCartney had begun writing the tune when he arrived at Lennon's house some days before the band was scheduled to begin recordings.  He had some basic lyrics along the lines of "I can give you diamond rings," which Lennon rejected.  Once they replaced that with the line "baby, you can drive my car," they had the breakthrough they needed to tell a witty tale of unrequited love and the longing for fame and fortune.

The song was chosen to open the UK version of Rubber Soul, but Capitol Records kept it off of the American version.  Six months later, it finally did open an album in the US - the compilation "Yesterday"...and Today. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Don't Pass Me By

The first solo composition credited to Richard Starkey has a surprisingly long history.  Ringo had at least the basis for Don't Pass Me By when he joined the Beatles, and he reportedly played it for his new bandmates soon thereafter.  When asked if he was interested in songwriting during a radio interview in New Zealand on the group's first world tour in 1964, Ringo had John and Paul sing the chorus.  Yet they never seriously considered recording it until sessions began for the double album The Beatles in 1968.

In his book Here, There and Everywhere, engineer Geoff Emerick recalls that he and producer George Martin were taken aback on June 5th when work began on the number.  Ringo's songs were typically last-minute efforts as an album neared completion, but this was just a few days into the new sessions with only Lennon's Revolution 1 in progress at the time.  The only other member of the band to appear on the recording is Paul, who played a piano miked through an amplifier and a Leslie speaker thus making it sound like an organ.

Ringo and Paul made a mere three attempts at the basic track before the composer was satisfied, even though each of them lost count of the measures and made mistakes every time.  Ringo overdubbed a sleigh bell and Paul a second piano part before Ringo sang his lead vocal.  Unhappy with the attempt, it was erased and Paul added two bass lines instead.  The following day, these bass parts were wiped and Ringo sang and double-tracked a new lead vocal.  Paul then overdubbed a new bass line to complete the day's work.

They did not return to the track until July 12th, at which time a session musician was brought in to provide the distinctive country and western touch that the song required.  The arrival of fiddler Jack Fallon was quite a surprise; the Beatles recognized him as an agent who had booked them for one of their earliest appearances in the south of England on March 31st, 1962.  The irony, of course, is that Pete Best was still the group's drummer on that occasion, yet Fallon was now present to work on Ringo's song.  After his contribution was recorded, Paul overdubbed more bass and Ringo even played a little piano.

The final addition to the track occurred ten days later, on July 22nd, when Paul played an introductory piece for the number.  Once again, the piano was miked as on June 5th so that it would match up with the sound on the rest of the track.  Only eight seconds of his playing were chosen to be tacked onto the front of the song.*

Don't Pass Me By can be heard in several various ways.  The "White Album" was the last to be given a full mono mix, and it is significantly different from the stereo.  The mono is slightly faster, thus making Ringo's voice sound rather high, and Jack Fallon's fiddling at the end of the track is entirely different from what is heard on the stereo mix.  As the mono album was not released in the US in 1968, this version was included on the American album Rarities in 1980.  And the basic track from June 5th is available on Anthology 3 with Ringo's vocal from June 6th (featuring a spoken section edited out of the master), though the song fades out early just before the break in the full recording.

* Also on July 22nd, an orchestra recorded George Martin's arrangement for Ringo's other vocal spotlight on the album, the Lennon composition Good Night.  Furthermore, they supposedly recorded an alternate introduction for Don't Pass Me By scored by Martin, though this is clearly heard in the film Yellow Submarine just before the Eleanor Rigby sequence.  Given the title A Beginning, this piece is used to open the compilation Anthology 3.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Don't Let Me Down

Lennon's first great song of love for Yoko Ono was also easily his best new composition for the Get Back/Let It Be project.  It was rehearsed by the band in the beginning of January 1969 at the Twickenham Film Studios sessions.  The Fly on the Wall disc from the 2003 release Let It Be - Naked reveals that the chords of Lennon's Abbey Road song Sun King and the chorus of Don't Let Me Down are one and the same.  Another snippet on the disc lets us hear John and Paul structuring the song during these early sessions.

After a hiatus due to George's temporary walkout, the group reconvened on January 22nd at their new studio in the basement of Apple headquarters on Savile Row, where George recruited old friend Billy Preston to join in the proceedings.  No further proof of Preston's consummate skill is needed than to listen to the take of Don't Let Me Down that Glyn Johns selected for the unreleased Get Back LP.  This take is from Billy's first day sitting in with the Beatles and his part is already mostly in place.  The only exception is his brief solo after John's call of, "Hit it, Bill," that allows the keyboard player to ad lib his way through to the end of the number.

The take that became the B-side of the single Get Back was recorded on January 28th.  On every other version of the song that I have ever heard, George joins in the chorus, but he either did not sing on this occasion or his voice was somehow lost in the mix.

Phil Spector's decision to omit the song from the 1970 album Let It Be was remedied in 2003 on Let It Be - Naked, which presents an edit of the two rooftop performances of the number from January 30th, 1969.  The tempo here is a little quicker than on the familiar B-side and, though John continues his usual practice of changing lyrics as he goes, the playing by those around him is rock solid.  The film Let It Be includes the first of these two performances, with a group of men on the adjoining rooftop (and one fellow in a blue sweater in particular) making constant comments on the proceedings.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Don't Bother Me

The Beatles had already recorded two songs featuring George Harrison as lead vocalist for their second album With the Beatles when the young guitarist offered his first solo composition to the group.  Harrison had previously received co-credit with McCartney for the 1958 recording In Spite of All the Danger by the Quarry Men and shared billing with Lennon for the instrumental Cry for a Shadow, recorded in Hamburg.  Lennon and McCartney were now at their early peak as a songwriting team so it must have been quite daunting for the junior member of the band to step forward at this moment.

He reportedly wrote the song while sick in bed during the group's week-long engagement at Bournemouth in August of 1963.  Bill Harry of Liverpool's Mersey Beat paper had been urging George to try his hand at songwriting and so, worn down by Harry's insistence and with time on his hands, he came up with Don't Bother Me.  Now, he simply had to convince producer George Martin, manager Brian Epstein and music publisher Dick James to allow him to record his maiden composition with the greatest act in British show business history.

September 11th was the next recording date scheduled for the album-in-the-works.  The band recorded four Lennon-McCartney songs before turning its collective attention to Harrison's number late in the evening session.  According to Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth look at the song, John took up some time trying to play his rhythm guitar through a new toy called a fuzz box before Martin nixed the idea.  This immediately established the lack of focus that John would display toward George's compositions throughout the coming years.  Four takes of the backing track and three of overdubs yielded unsatisfactory results for the time being.

They returned to the number at the start of the evening session on the following day, September 12th.  Beginning with the round number of take ten, they tried a few different arrangements before hitting the right one on take thirteen (you can even hear George say "Too fast" during the intro on the record, but he obviously changed his mind upon hearing it).  Several takes of overdubs brought the total to take nineteen, but the best overdubs were from take fifteen.  These included George double-tracking his lead vocal, Paul on claves, John on tambourine and Ringo on a loose-skinned Arabian bongo (as detailed in Tony Barrow's liner notes for the album).

Young Mister Harrison had learned his new craft well enough to land his number on side one of With the Beatles among those of the hottest songwriting team working at the time.  A few months later, Capitol Records placed it prominently at the top of side two on the breakthrough American album Meet the Beatles.  Though the group never played it live, Don't Bother Me was chosen to be one of three songs used in the discotheque sequence in the film A Hard Day's Night.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Doctor Robert

It has often been stated by music critics that the Beatles did not pad their albums with filler material (the one notable exception being the "White Album," which does have its share), but even the masterpiece Revolver has one less-than-stellar composition by John Lennon.  This is not to say that Doctor Robert is an awful song, but it is clearly not on a par with the other songs on this magnificent album.

It is notable for being one of the first compositions by the group to reference drugs, though most young fans hopefully missed this at the time.  Both Lennon and McCartney admitted that the song was an inside joke about an infamous New York doctor who gave vitamin shots laced with speed to celebrities, though the Beatles implied that he was British with the lyric "My friend works for the National Health."

The recording was made early on during the sessions for Revolver.  On April 17th, 1966, the band laid down several attempts at the backing track with the final one, take seven, hitting just the right groove.  This utilized the usual line-up of drums, bass and two electric guitars.  Overdubs included multiple extra guitar lines from George, maracas (also played by George), piano from Paul (though this was either buried or omitted from the final mix) and a harmonium part played by John for the mock-solemn bridge.

Two days later, on April 19th, they concentrated solely on the vocals.  John's lead was recorded with ADT (Artificial Double Tracking).  Paul provided a strong harmony vocal from the second verse on, and George joined the others for the bridge, completing the job.  All in all, it was a relatively simple recording compared with most others from these sessions.

This song was soon sent along with two other Lennon compositions to Capitol Records for inclusion on the compilation album "Yesterday"...and Today, released in June.  Whether those in charge planned it or not, the recording's fadeout/full stop served to nicely set up Paul's famous ballad Yesterday.  On the UK album Revolver, released in August, producer George Martin deliberately chose to have this faded ending lead into the fade up of Harrison's I Want to Tell You.

Like most of the band's recordings from 1966 on, they never performed the song live. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Do You Want to Know a Secret

George Harrison taped his first official lead vocal during the afternoon of February 11th, 1963 as part of the group's incredible all-day session recording the bulk of the album Please Please Me.  He was understandably nervous and his voice was shaky even on the keeper, take six, but his bashful charm helped him carry the song that John Lennon had written for him.  Overdubs of John and Paul's backing vocals and Ringo tapping sticks throughout the bridge completed the simple recording.

Lennon had been inspired by the memory of his mother Julia singing the song Wishing Well from Disney's first full-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  This may seem to be an unlikely source for a brash young rock-and-roller, yet it only serves to demonstrate that Lennon and McCartney had a broad musical knowledge even at the start of their songwriting partnership.

It was not an automatic choice for George or the Beatles, however.  Lennon famously recorded a demo of the song in late '62 for fellow artist Billy J. Kramer in a Hamburg bathroom stall and pulled the chain on the toilet once he had finished.  Kramer did wind up recording the song with his backing group the Dakotas a month or so after the Beatles, and his version went to the top of the charts in the UK (number one on some charts and number two on others).

After the Beatles recorded the song, they included it as George's vocal spotlight in their stage act for the next few months of 1963.  He also performed it on multiple TV and radio appearances made by the group during this period.  By the summer, they felt the song had run its course and replaced it with George's faithful cover version of Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven.

The American label Vee-Jay Records initially released Do You Want to Know a Secret on the album Introducing...the Beatles.  Once Beatlemania reached the US, the label chose the song as the A-side of a single in March of 1964.  American fans bought this single in such quantities that it went all the way to number two on the Billboard chart, an impressive feat for young Mr. Harrison.