Please note, this isn’t aimed at any one person.
Today, like October the 9th, sees people all over the internet mourning for John Lennon. I’m not going to say they shouldn’t (and they’d quite rightly ignore me if I did) — John Lennon deserves mourning.
But unfortunately, a lot of them seem to be mourning St John The Martyr, Who Died That We Might Have Peace, rather than the actual human being John Lennon. A lot of the posts, videos and so on seem to be about the most perfect human being who ever lived, who was too beautiful for this world and who thought only of love.
To my mind, this is actually horribly disrespectful of the man and his memory.
Lennon was, of course, always the first to mythologise himself — but he was also the first to tear that mythology down and destroy it.
Lennon was, in many ways, a fairly horrible human being. He regularly mocked the disabled on stage, made some arguably racist comments, was a terrible father to his first child, and was a violent thug who beat at least his first wife regularly.
There were only two saving graces that made up for that — his sincere desire to change, and his brutal honesty.
Those are the things that made his flaws forgivable — *everyone* does terrible things, not everyone tries to fix their own flaws — but they were also the things that made him the great artist he was. You can’t throw a stone in Liverpool without hitting someone with a good singing voice, a way with a melody, and an acerbic wit. But if you’ve only got those things, you’re Lee Mavers, you’re not John Lennon.
It’s Lennon’s awareness of his flaws, and his attempts to document and transcend them, that let him write In My Life, Jealous Guy, God, Working Class Hero, Strawberry Fields, I Am The Walrus, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and the rest. The erasure of that, in favour of a public image that seems closer to that of St Francis Of Assissi, seems to me to be a huge crime against his memory.
So rather than remember him as a martyr or an angel, I’m going to remember him like he is here, in what seems to be the only video of him on YouTube that *isn’t* made up of soft-focus shots of him looking saintly. As a man with a great voice, singing a very good song he wrote. In the end, that’s all he was — but that’s enough. We have enough saints, we need more singers.
A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
This is going to be the shortest of these Beach Boys articles. Partly, this is because I plan on writing at least two more blog posts this weekend – the Cerebus and scientific method ones (and maybe the first chapter of my novel) (and I’ve also got to get some stuff done for work). Mostly, however, it’s because where other albums have filler tracks, this is an entire filler CD. It can be listened to on Spotify here, if you must.
Of the two albums on this CD, one, 1968’s Stack-O-Tracks consists entirely of instrumental mixes of tracks from previous records, so I won’t be dealing with it at all here – all I’d be saying is “It’s Darlin’ without the vocals – see the entry for Darlin’ under the Wild Honey album.”
The other album, though, Beach Boys Party!, requires at least a cursory glance through.
Beach Boys Party!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
Also features – Marilyn Wilson (backing vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals), Hal Blaine (percussion), Billy Hinsche (harmonica)
I can name the other participants simply here because unlike the albums that surround it, Beach Boys Party! is as far from being a complex, heavily-orchestrated masterpiece as possible. The band’s next real album, Pet Sounds would not be ready for several more months, but Capitol Records wanted a Christmas cash-in release. The two obvious ideas – a live album and an album of Christmas songs – had both been done the year before (we’ll deal with these when we get to 1969 and 1978, so we can deal with the other albums that share the CDs with them). So this time, it was decided to record a ‘live-in-the-studio’ album as if it were recorded at a party the band were attending,
So the band got together in the studio with a few acoustic guitars and Hal Blaine on bongos, and knocked out a set of incredibly sloppy cover versions of songs chosen seemingly at random, and then got friends to add party noises, and added a few wild tracks of party effects. This means that even the better tracks on the album have mistakes left in and general chatter and noise over the top.
The album might well have made a great soundtrack to a teenager’s party in 1965 – and even today for that matter – but as music, as a listening experience, it ranges from pretty decent to outright horrible, and tends towards the latter.
A song originally recorded by The Olympics in 1959, this starts the album as it means to go on – a fun party tune with silly lyrics. Generally speaking, the album is split between songs that the band knew as teenagers (like this one) and ones by their contemporary influences. A nothing tune in this version, the original by the Olympics is a nice, strutting R&B track in the style of the Coasters, with a laid-back groove totally missing from this version. Mike takes lead.
I Should Have Known Better
The first of three Beatles covers on the album – all covers of Lennon songs (lending credence to my belief that Lennon, rather than McCartney, is the closer songwriter to the Beach Boys’ style). This features just the first two verses and middle eight of the song, sung in unison by several people. At various points the most prominent voice in the mix is Al (always the strongest vocalist in the band), Brian or Brian’s wife Marilyn (a singer herself, with girl-group the Honeys, though not a particularly good one). Mike tries to add some character with some “bow bow bow” backing vocals in the middle eight, but this is just a crowd singing along with an acoustic guitar…
Tell Me Why
The second Lennon cover, this is a more creditable performance, as the song’s simple block harmonies and four-chord changes make it perfect for this kind of atmosphere – especially since the band don’t bother with the instrumental intro from the original (like the previous song, on the A Hard Day’s Night album). Even so, the performance falls apart at the end of the middle eight like before.
I’m still unsure who’s singing lead here – Wikipedia says Carl and Al, and it could be them – but it could also be Brian and Carl or Brian and Al. No matter how many times I listen (and I’ve listened multiple times just now to the finished version and to two outtakes) I can’t decide for sure – this is in precisely the range where those three sound most similar.
In a nice touch, Brian added this to the acoustic ‘party’ set when he performed in Liverpool in 2004 on the Smile tour, in this arrangement (such as it is).
The best track so far, this was actually the second time the band had recorded this song, originally by The Rivingtons, in a year – it had appeared on the Concert album the previous year. This is actually the better of the two versions, because the fun in this song is almost entirely in the vocal performance – Love growling the ‘papa oom mow mow’ part in a comically low bass voice, while Brian screeches, yowls, whoops and wails in falsetto. The looseness of this setting allows them to go to ridiculous extremes with this, and the result is genuinely enjoyable.
Mountain Of Love
Originally by Harold Dorman, a one-hit wonder, this had been a hit the previous year for Johnny Rivers, and it’s Rivers’ arrangement the Beach Boys are clearly copying here, down to the backing vocals. A simple twelve-bar blues with little going for it, the song obviously stuck with Brian Wilson – twelve years later he copied the middle eight note for note for his song Little Children (which remained unreleased for another eleven years and eventually became a track on his first solo album). Love sings lead, and rudimentary harmonica is provided by Billy Hinsche, of the minor teen-pop band Dino, Desi and Billy. Carl Wilson would marry Hinsche’s sister Annie the next year, and Hinsche became a regular member of the Beach Boys’ touring band from the early 70s, adding keyboards, guitar and backing vocals until the mid-90s.
You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
The third Lennon cover on the album, and one of only two tracks that could really be counted as in any way good here, Dennis takes lead and plays the song straight (though the party crowd do all join in on the “Hey!” parts). While it’s spoiled by the party noises (this is anything but a party song), Dennis’ soulful croak is perfect for this song, one of Lennon’s best and most mournful. It also, more than any of the other tracks, puts the lie to the ostensibly spontaneous nature of these recordings – Dennis is very sloppily double-tracked here.
This song actually entered the band’s setlist as Dennis’ vocal spot (taking over from The Wanderer ). If you want to hear just how good the song sounds without the party noises, at least three concerts featuring the song have been widely bootlegged (two from Michigan in excellent quality soundboard recordings, one from Japan as an audience recording with some nice added harmonies), not that I could ever recommend taking such action of course, but even here this is far and away the best thing on the album so far.
Devoted To You
And this is the best thing on the album full stop. A rather light little ballad written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant for the Everly Brothers, here Mike and Brian sing it, with Carl accompanying on the guitar, and they are absolutely stunning. While the Everlys are possibly the greatest vocal harmony duo of all time, Devoted To You isn’t one of their better efforts – giving the melody to Phil while Don sang low harmony (usually Don would sing melody while Phil would take high harmony) means it doesn’t play to their strengths. On the other hand here Brian and Mike still have the vocal similarity that comes from being family members, but Brian gets to sing the song in a gorgeous falsetto while Mike harmonises in a rich baritone.
Off the top of my head I can’t think of another time when Brian and Mike have harmonised so closely – the signature Beach Boys style required the two of them to be almost antiphonal, playing off each other while the rest of the band did block harmonies in the middle. And later on, of course, the band moved away from harmony to a great extent and towards counterpoint.
But this shows how much this was a conscious choice – these two voices, alone, are absolutely spellbinding. Much as I love Brian’s more complex vocal arrangements, I’d still kill to hear an album of Brian and Mike singing two-part harmony a la Simon & Garfunkel, the Everlys or the Louvin Brothers.
The party noises are mixed down for this one, but if you want to give the track the respect it deserves, the rarities CD Hawthorne, Ca has a mix of this with the noises mixed out altogether.
Originally a country single for Dallas Frazer, this song about the cartoon caveman had become a hit for the Hollywood Argyles in 1960. The Hollywood Argyles were a studio creation put together by Kim Fowley (a schoolfriend of Bruce Johnston who managed to be involved in a minor way in almost every major music event for thirty years despite having no discernible talent – he made some of the first surf records, played on Frank Zappa’s first album, is the announcer on John Lennon’s Live Peace In Toronto and so on – he’s the LA hipster equivalent of Zelig) and their take on the song was essentially to turn it into Hully Gully (and indeed they had a hit with a cover of that song in 1961).
This is also (along with The Monster Mash) one of two songs covered by both the Beach Boys and the Bonzo Dog Band, who presumably came across both songs from the Beach Boys’ versions.
I mention all this because there’s little to say about the song itself, which is just Hully Gully with lyrics about dinosaurs.
There’s No Other (Like My Baby)
A four-chord doo-wop ballad written by Phil Spector and Leroy Bates for the Crystals, this is played fairly straight, sticking close to the template of the original record, with Brian singing the Darlene Love lead part, and the rest of the band and ‘party guests’ singing the unison vocal choruses. Other than You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Devoted To You this is the most straightforward, respectful cover on the album. Unfortunately, it’s a straightforward, respectful cover of a plodding dirge, but you can’t have everything.
I Get Around/Little Deuce Coupe
A ‘hilarious’ comedy medley of two of the Beach Boys’ own hits, where Mike Love tries to improvise funny parody lyrics and fails miserably.An example is that after one of the “I get around” bits he sings “square”. Oh my aching sides.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Al Jardine, the band’s resident folkie, here gets a chance to sing a Dylan song. One always gets the impression from Jardine, with his whitebread earnestness, that he wishes he’d been in one of the bands parodied in A Mighty Wind – whereas Brian Wilson obsessed over the Four Freshmen, Jardine was a Kingston Trio fan, and his later contributions to the band are often either attempts at protest songs (Lookin’ At Tomorrow, Don’t Go Near The Water) or clean-cut versions of old folk songs (Sloop John B and Cottonfields. It tells you everything you need to know about Jardine that it was his idea to do Sloop John B but that at the recent reunion performance he added “but not too much!” after the line “drinkin’ all night”).
Jardine obviously likes the song, and does a very creditable job, punctuated by random shouts from the crowd, who seem less than impressed.
Dean Torrence, of Jan & Dean, was known as a nice person. However, it was equally well known that he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, even if that bucket were inside another bucket with an easy-carry handle, and if he were aided by two professional bucket-carriers and a bucket-carrying machine. He sometimes wasn’t even allowed to sing on Jan & Dean’s own records, the falsetto parts being as likely to be sung by Brian Wilson or P.F. Sloan as by Torrence himself.
Nonetheless, he was there in the studio, and it was decided that he’d be allowed to sing lead on this, a cover of a song written by Fred Fassert for The Regents, which Jan & Dean had recently covered themselves. After all, this was a filler album, no-one was going to pay attention, right?
Carl Wilson, thirty-one years later, called this song “the bane of my life”. Released as a single by the record company without the band’s knowledge or permission, this sloppy, hideously off-key (Brian can be heard during a session outtake groaning “Hey Dean, sing on key! Jesus!”) cover version, where the band forget the words half-way through and with someone who isn’t even in the band on lead vocals, somehow became one of their biggest ever hits, and they had to sing it every working day for the rest of their lives.
Just goes to show that you should never just pump out filler crap for the money, or it can come back to bite you…
You’d have thought that after spending much of the last month finishing writing a book on the Beatles which required listening and relistening to every track they ever recorded multiple times, that I’d have had enough John Lennon for a while. And you’d be right. But then, a day after I finished my book and got it published, Lennon’s solo catalogue showed up on Spotify.
Lennon’s solo work gets a bad press these days, and his critical stock is very low. To some extent it’s justified – albums like Double Fantasy and Some Time In New York City would be weak by any standards, let alone when you know they’re the work of someone who could come up with songs like A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
But far more of it’s an over-reaction to the way that in the aftermath of his death, Lennon became the Great Untouchable in the eyes of that generation of rock critics, his every note perfection itself. And on top of that, for quite understandable reasons Yoko Ono has maintained a tight grip on Lennon’s public image, presenting St John The Martyr, Who Died For Peace. Frankly, I’d probably be doing something similar in her position – had I seen my spouse shot dead in front of me, I’d probably want to make sure everyone thought as well as possible of them, and not want to dwell on their faults.
But of course, naturally, then people find out about the man’s real faults (and he had some tremendous faults – he was at times a horrible person), presume that his public image now is how he presented himself in life, and conclude he was a horrible hypocrite, and let that judgement reflect on their view of his music.
But of course Lennon was neither a saint nor Satan, and nor did he ever claim to be either. He was, rather, someone who by instinct was an unpleasant, vicious, mysoginistic, near-psychopath, albeit one who was very charming, bright and funny. But he was someone who *didn’t want to be that way* and tried to change. Nobody desires peace quite as much as someone whose every instinct is telling him to go for the throat, and has seen where that gets you. Nobody is as sincere a feminist as a repentant former wife-beater.
And that complexity fuelled his music. While outside books like Ray Coleman’s hagiography nobody would claim Lennon was as good post-Beatles as during the 60s, and very few people would seriously argue his inspiration didn’t drop off, at the same time he *was* still one of the two or three greatest songwriters of his generation, and probably *the* greatest vocalist. Cutting this complex man down to the banality of Imagine and a load of songs about how much he loved his wife misses the point.
So I’ve put together this playlist of my personal favourite Lennon solo tracks. Listening to the new remasters via Spotify, they’re not the best mastering I’ve heard of this material – there’s a sheen to them I don’t like, and there’s even more reverb here than on the original recordings, which were already reverb-heavy thanks to Lennon’s desire to cover up his voice and Phil Spector’s obsession with echo. But I’m still glad to have Lennon’s music on Spotify, and I hope that when his critical reputation settles down, it will be higher than it is right now (though still not at the “Angela and John Sinclair are masterpieces” levels of the early 80s).
Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) is a live version of an old blues track by the Olympics, performed onstage live with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention (the “Flo & Eddie” line-up – this was actually recorded on the second of the two shows that became the Filmore East June 1971 album). In general, I prefer the mix of this show that Zappa put out on the Playground Psychotics album to the version on Some Time In New York City, but on this track I prefer Phil Spector’s mix, just because the massive reverb works so well with Zappa’s astonishing guitar solo.
#9 Dream is from Lennon’s other solo masterpiece (the first being Plastic Ono Band), Walls & Bridges. Lennon’s last great single, it’s actually a rewrite of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross. Lennon had recently produced a rather poor Harry Nilsson album, Pussycats, on which Nilsson covered that song, and Lennon took the string melody he’d written for the backing track and used it as his vocal melody here.
The other song I’ve included here from Walls & Bridges is Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out. Originally written for Frank Sinatra (who turned it down), I *love* Lennon’s vocal here, the hesitant, croaking, laid back verses contrasting with the screamed “When I get up in the morning” section, and the way the backing track is mostly going for a lounge singer kind of feel, except that the horns do the occasional dissonant squawk and the strings are being faux-Oriental. The whole thing’s wonderfully put together, down to the way that the “ooh wee”s and “what it is”s that Sinatra would have ad-libbed are actually part of the lyric proper.
Gimme Some Truth from Imagine is actually the last Lennon/McCartney song to be recorded, though not credited as such. If you listen to the Get Back sessions, you can clearly hear McCartney singing the “no short-haired yellow-bellied” part (originally “No freaked-out narrow-minded son of Gary Cooper”) in his Little Richard voice, and studio chat referring to it as Paul’s bit of the song. It’s one of those things that once heard can’t be unheard – of course McCartney wrote that bit. George Harrison provides the great slide solo on here.
Woman Is The Nigger Of The World is the one real song worthy of the name on Some Time In New York City. Inspired by a quote by Irish revolutionary leader James Connoly, via Yoko Ono, this rock & roll waltz, musically very like some of the later Beatles material, is the perfect example of the zeal of the recent convert, and one of the greatest feminist songs of all time. “We insult her every day on TV/And wonder why she has no guts or confidence” “If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man/While putting her down we pretend that she is above us”. These may be obvious sentiments now, at least to that proportion of people who hold “the radical belief that women are human beings”, but in 1972 they were not especially widely-voiced sentiments.
And Lennon includes himself in his condemnation – every line is “we”, not “you” – he’s not preaching to other men from a better position, he’s a member of the patriarchy saying “this is what we’re doing”. But this would mean nothing were the music not so good, from the great sax part at the start to the end, where Lennon screams “we make her paint her face and dance!” over relentless, driving, horns and strings.
Crippled Inside is an almost-perfect track. An upbeat skiffle-flavoured 12-bar, with some lovely dobro work by George Harrison and some nice piano playing by Nicky Hopkins, it manages to turn what lyrically is a vicious put-down of person or persons unknown (probably McCartney, though as with many of Lennon’s attack songs he later admitted the lyrics seem aimed far more at himself than anyone else) into a jaunty country track.
Jealous Guy is one of Lennon’s best ballads, and one that I’m sure almost everyone can identify with. What’s amazing is that this started during the White Album sessions as Child Of Nature, with a totally different feel and different lyrics (“I’m just a child of nature/I don’t need much to set me free”) and still worked almost as well. One touch I particularly like is that he sings “thought that you was trying to hide” rather than you were. That little bit of vernacular Scouse sells the whole lyric as being honest.
Nobody Told Me is a wonderful little piece of nonsense (“There’s Nazis in the bathroom, just below the stairs”, “Everybody’s running and no one makes a move/Everyone’s a winner and no one seems to lose/There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu”) from the posthumous Milk And Honey album. Clearly a guide vocal, it’s entirely possible that had Lennon lived, he’d have added a much more polished, but much less fun, finished vocal. But as it is, his wit shines through here in a way it does all too little on his later recordings generally.
Grow Old With Me is a piano-and-beatbox demo of a song Lennon never got round to recording properly, and you can hear how even though he was only recording on a boombox for himself, he nevertheless still double-tracked his vocal to disguise what he thought were its flaws. Actually, it’s astonishing how different his voice is here – right at the top of his falsetto range, this sounds vocally like the Bonzo Dog Band track Piggy Bank Love. This song, one of my very favourites of his later tracks, was written in response to Ono writing the song “Let Me Count The Ways” – Ono’s song was based on a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so Lennon wrote a song starting with a line by Robert Browning.
Look At Me is an acoustic track from Plastic Ono Band that was writen in Rishikesh when the Beatles went there in 1968, and is very much of a piece with other songs from that era that made the White Album, like Mother Nature’s Son and Julia, that are based around a finger-picking technique Donovan taught them while they were there.
God is one of the most well-known songs here, the climax of the Plastic Ono Band album where, over “Love Letters” piano, Lennon throws away his past and all his beliefs, climaxing with “I just believe in me/Yoko and me/that’s reality”. This has been seen as the worst kind of navel-gazing solipsism, but in fact it’s Lennon trying to get away from his own past mistakes and his own worst attributes – Lennon was always looking for a father figure, a leader, whether that be Elvis or the Maharishi, and was disillusioned by all of them. And he was, after all, singing “I don’t believe in Beatles” while Ringo Starr was drumming behind him (and indeed ‘fifth Beatle’ Billy Preston was on piano, and Klaus Voorman, who played bass, was the cover designer for Revolver. For someone who wanted to leave the past and the Beatles behind he wasn’t doing a very good job)…
Mother, the opener of Plastic Ono Band is another song that comes in for criticism for being too self-centred. But while it is very obviously based in Lennon’s traumatic upbringing – and since when did it become a bad thing to draw on personal experiences to create art? – it was, as Lennon said when introducing it in his 1972 New York concert, “about 90% of all the parents”. While I am lucky enough to have had a relatively (all things considered) stable upbringing, those people I know who haven’t can identify *VERY* strongly with this song (about Lennon’s memory of being forced to choose which parent to stay with – the father who abandoned him, or the mother who left him to be brought up by her sister). And even I am utterly astonished by the feeling when Lennon screams “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home”. One of the truly great vocal performances of all time.
Working Class Hero is essentially a rewrite of Dylan’s Masters Of War. A lot of people misread this title as triumphalist, but in fact the song is not even about class, as such, but about the way society harms everybody – “then they expect you to pick a career/when you can’t even function you’re so full of fear”, “there’s room at the top they are telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill”.
Cold Turkey is one of the greatest singles ever made. The arrangement is one of the simplest ever – Ringo’s kit damped to the point where it’s almost a click track, Voorman’s bass low in the mix, leaving empty space for that vocal and Eric Clapton’s greatest guitar part ever. What’s fascinating is to compare this to the version on the Live Peace In Toronto album (with Clapton, Voorman, Alan “the one from Yes not the one from Oasis” White, and Yoko on extra screams), which is far rawer, faster and more primal than this one, and a near-perfect performance in itself (even though none of the band had heard the song til the plane trip over). But whereas that one was angry and exciting, this is tense and scary. What amazes me is that Clapton actually started taking heroin after recording this – what kind of fool makes a record like this and then thinks “That sounds like a good idea!”?
And finally, from Lennon’s Rock & Roll covers album we have Just Because, a Lloyd Price song that Lennon probably knew from Larry Williams’ version. This is mostly fun for Lennon’s intro and outro banter as “Doctor Winston O’Boogie”.
There’ll be an ebook version available soon too, but it’s 6 O’Clock in the morning now, I’ve pulled an all-nighter, the conversion to .epub hasn’t worked properly and there’s no way I’m hand-hacking XML when I’m this tired, so you’ll have to wait a while for that.
The book contains:
Expanded versions of my Beatles In Mono reviews, now with every single song analysed.
Five longer analyses – of Hey Jude, Strawberry Fields, A Day In The Life, A Hard Day’s Night and Tomorrow Never Knows
Shorter (but still multi-page) looks at the two stereo-only albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, plus the Ballad Of John & Yoko/Old Brown Shoe single.
And brief (one page at most) reviews of Love, Let It Be… Naked, Live At The BBC, The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl, Liverpool Sound Collage and the three Anthology double-discs.
I go die now. And you go buy books, so my sacrifice isn’t in vain. Hardback and paperback. The paperback will also shortly be available through (US) Amazon, but the hardback will only be available through that site.
I haven’t received my proof copies, so I apologise in advance for any typos or printing errors. I’ve done everything here from writing it to typesetting to proofreading to cover design, so some errors are bound to have crept in – but hopefully not enough to stop it being worth your while.
I’ve gone a week without posting because this is going to be a huge one, and I wanted to make a big post my 400th one, rather than some tossed-off linkblog or something.
The White Album is a tremendously difficult record to write about, far more so than any other Beatles album. This is not just because of the sheer amount of material on there – though thirty songs is a lot by anyone’s standards – but because this is the first Beatles album that doesn’t feel like a coherent work by a group, but a rehearsal for four separate solo careers. Many of the tracks (especially Paul’s) are essentially solo tracks, Ringo quit the band for a while during recording, and even George Martin wasn’t present for a large part of it, leaving much of the production work to his assistant Chris Thomas (later producer of Never Mind The Bollocks, For Your Pleasure and Different Class, among other classic albums).
Despite that, though, there are a number of threads connecting the album together – in particular there’s a strong sense of musical nostalgia here. While every previous Beatles album had broken new ground and looked forward, this one is looking back. In a way, this is an extension of the childhood influence felt throughout Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, but this time they’re looking back to their teens, and to the simpler musical styles then – along with the music-hall influences that have already shown up, we now have the return of Little Richard, doo-wop, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and the early Beach Boys to the band’s musical palette.
In part, this reflects a general turn to ‘getting back to our roots’ that was happening throughout the pop-music world in 1968. The first sign of this was probably the Beach Boys’ late-67 R&B-flavoured album Wild Honey, but in 68 the music world completely turned towards ‘rootsy’, ‘bluesy’ music at the expense of pop artifice and ‘progressive’ sounds. This was around the time the ridiculous notion of ‘authenticity’ first took hold in popular music, leading to ridiculous ideas like the Rolling Stones being better than the Beatles because their music is more ‘authentic’ and ‘raw’ (because the ‘authentic’ music of white English LSE graduates is the same as that of black sharecroppers from Mississippi?)
Luckily, the Beatles were far too self-aware to fall for any notions of ‘authenticity’ (though Lennon would occasionally do so in his solo career, for brief periods), and so even though the bulk of this album was written during the most famous ‘getting our heads together in the country’ period of any of these bands – when the band went to stay in Rishikesh with the Maharishi – it’s as knowing, self-parodic, and downright funny as any Beatles album.
Back In The USSR, the opening track, brings a lot of this to the surface. Mostly written in Rishikesh (though the demo – recorded at George Harrison’s house in Esher along with demos for much of this album and several others by all the songwriting Beatles – is missing most of the verse lyrics), it’s a take-off of Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA.
It also, however, shows up the splits in the band. This is the first Beatles record since Love Me Do to feature someone other than Ringo on drums – Ringo having quit the band for two weeks, all three of the other band members supplied drums here, though it’s mostly Paul’s rather stiff style you can hear (giving the lie to John’s alleged quote – which I’ve never seen reliably cited – that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles). And in fact, the lyric shows up the general exhaustion with the band that everyone was feeling – it’s just heartfelt enough that it sounds like the relief of a musician home after an overlong tour.
The middle eight adds another influence – it’s not much of a conceptual jump to go from Chuck Berry to the early Beach Boys, especially given that Mike Love, the Beach Boys’ nasal lead vocalist, was with the Beatles on their retreat, so we get some Beach Boys pastiche (with some fairly good Love-esque bass vocals and much less convincing falsetto) in the middle eight. Mike Love has often claimed to have co-written this section – though McCartney has never mentioned this in any interview I’ve seen. And it’s noticeable that Love – who has shown no reticence about suing his mentally-ill cousin for such minor contributions to lyrics as ‘giddy-up’ or ‘good night baby/sleep tight baby’ – has never sued over this. Love also doesn’t seem to realise that this section is a *joke*.
But this track has a lot of clever little touches – from the balalaika-like guitar in the last verse (louder in the mono version) to the quote from Georgia On My Mind, and is also a fun rocker. The main differences between the mono and stereo versions are just the plane noises being in different places, though you can also hear a final drum thump under the fade-out plane sounds that isn’t on the stereo mix.
And by the way, Ringo did eventually perform on a version of this – a live recording with the Beach Boys, on a charity record put out for Mike Love’s Love Foundation…
Dear Prudence is a gorgeous little song by Lennon (again featuring McCartney on drums). Based around a descending picking pattern all around a D-chord, this was probably musically inspired by the folk-pop singer Donovan, who was also in the group at Rishikesh and showed the band several picking patterns around odd tunings. However, the drone in the picking style (which probably comes from both Harrison’s interest in Indian music and Donovan’s knowledge of Scottish music – pipe-band music in particular bearing an almost shocking resemblance to Indian classical music at times) is offset by McCartney’s bass part, which while a fairly simple descending part that fits with the picking pattern, calls to mind more the baroque influence that had been seen recently in both the Beatles’ music and others’ (most notably A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum).
Lyrically, however, the song is a sweet message to Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister, who was *also* in Rishikesh, along with her sister), who was spending so much time in her room, meditating, that many of the rest of the people there thought she was suffering from depression and wanted to make her feel better. Farrow herself now says that she was fine, and found the song irritating, but it’s still a nice thought.
There’s no real difference between the mono and stereo versions of this song.
Glass Onion is the first track on the album to feature all the Beatles, and the difference is immediately apparent – even though this is not Ringo’s best drum performance (and in the mono version his tambourine part is *much* higher in the mix than in the stereo), the performance still has a groove to it that the first two tracks are lacking (competent as Paul’s playing is).
Of course, the song itself is a nothing, a deliberate joke at the expense of people hunting around in the lyrics of I Am The Walrus for ‘clues’ (when I Am The Walrus itself had at least started out as that kind of joke itself), but the joke is carried off with aplomb, and the arrangement has a lot of fun with recorder quotes from Fool On The Hill, a string part pastiching Martin’s parts for Strawberry Fields and I Am The Walrus but going ludicrously over the top, and Ringo’s little fills being semi-quotes from Rain, and then Martin’s out-of-nowhere string coda. It should be self-indulgent, rather nasty nonsense, but in fact it’s too much fun to feel bad.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, on the other hand, is just unpleasant. A cod-reggae track which features McCartney putting on an hilarious Jamaican accent, with a chorus line taken from a saying of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe (because all those black people are really the same, you know), it’s a patronising example of cultural appropriation – taking a few surface elements of the culture of Britain’s Carribean (and African) population and treating them as a joke. At a time when The Black And White Minstrels were mainstream evening TV, when Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant Rivers Of Blood speech had just caused national outcry, and where the reggae and ska the band are making fun of here were being enthusiastically taken up by the very same skinheads who wanted to ‘send back’ the black people who brought that music to Britain, it’s possibly a blessing that this track is affectionately patronising rather than hostile, but that’s all that could be said for it. See Get Back for more on this…
Of course, that could be excused somewhat were Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in any way a good song – or a good joke – but it’s a relentlessly cheery song with the forced rictus grin of a suicidal holiday camp entertainer getting the audience to sing along to the Birdie Song, rather than having any spark of joy or wit about it. There are dozens of neat details in the arrangement or production, but I can’t face listening to this song again to note them down.
Wild Honey Pie on the other hand – an entirely solo McCartney performance, is, despite its tossed-off improvised nature, genuinely fun. Musically rather similar to Girl or Michelle if one looks at the actual musical elements (and bearing a striking resemblance to the Toreador song from Carmen), we have guitars sounding like harpsichords, the first example of the humorous steel guitar that would dominate much of McCartney’s first two solo albums, and Goon Show vocals. It’s only a shame that McCartney could toss off something as spontaneous and joyful as this in a matter of minutes, and then spend hours or days producing something as joyless as Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da…
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill is a singalong written by Lennon in Rishikesh, apparently about a fellow meditator who took a quick break from communing with nature to go and shoot endangered animals for fun. It’s another tossed-off joke song, but with a lot more bile and feeling to it – “he’s an all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” – although it descends into surrealism by the end with references to Captain Marbles [sic]. It’s actually quite close, lyrically, to the short story On Safairy With Whide Hunter from Lennon’s In His Own Write, while musically it’s simply pinched wholesale from the old standard Stay As Sweet As You Are.
And of course the fact that Yoko Ono becomes the first non-Beatle to sing a lead line on a Beatles track, in character as ‘mommy’, has a whole new resonance when one realises the Freudian elements of their relationship…
While My Guitar Gently Weeps takes us back to more ‘meaty’ musical matter after four joke songs in a row, and unfortunately is a little too ponderous in this arrangement (which I always liked – until I heard Harrison’s original acoustic demo of the song).
As with many of Harrison’s songs, the finished record owes a lot to other people – not only Eric Clapton’s famous solo (to my ears much better than almost anything that most overrated of guitarists did elsewhere, with the exception of his playing on Cold Turkey), but McCartney’s piano and organ part make up a large part of the sound of the track. But the fragile little song at the heart of it is more-or-less overwhelmed by the dense arrangement – possibly because this was the first track ever recorded at Abbey Road with an eight-track machine, they went a little overdub-crazy on the track.
In the mono version, the main differences are that Clapton’s guitar is more audible after his solo, and that the fade lasts quite a bit longer.
Happiness Is A Warm Gun… where to even start with this one? Like so many of Lennon’s best works, it’s so idiosyncratic and personal a song in its construction that even if one dissects it bar-by-bar and examines every little detail, it’s impossible to see *why* it works, but at the same time it’s as affecting a piece of music as any ever recorded.
In its two minutes and forty four seconds (the same length to the second as Back In The USSR, which opens the side this closes – an example of the kind of little details, conscious or not, that go into the sequencing of something as mammoth as this), Happiness contains as many ideas as many entire albums by other people. This is another of those songs that I point to when people say that Ringo can’t drum, as well, because metrically this is *astonishingly* difficult – just to break down the ‘jump the gun’ section, we’ve got that oddly stressed melody (which I strongly suspect was ‘inspired’ by America from West Side Story) which would be tricky enough itself, but every *second* repetition throws in an extra beat, so for every two ‘mother superior jump the gun’s you have five bars of 3/4 and one of 4/4 (or four threes and a seven, which is how it sounds to my ears). We also get odd single fives thrown in (like ‘a soap impression of his wife…’)
On top of this we have Lennon’s most sexually charged lyric to that date – even the ‘nonsense’ opening section has the man with mirrors on his boots (to look up women’s skirts), let alone the parts about jumping the gun and feeling ‘my finger on your trigger’.
But ultimately, this is the kind of thing that makes me feel the truth of Zappa’s dictum that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and is why ultimately I feel more overawed by Lennon’s talent than McCartney’s. With McCartney, even his best songs I can sit down and examine them and say ‘he did this, for this reason, and that’s why it’s so good. I could have thought of that, if I’d been clever enough to think of that’. With Lennon, on the other hand, at his peak, in songs like this, or Walrus, or Strawberry Fields, or Tomorrow Never Knows, one can analyse the songs for entire books (and people have) and still be none the wiser about why they’re so spectacularly good.
The mono mix to this is very different to the stereo one. While the only differences I can put my finger on are that there is an organ part in the intro that’s not there on the stereo version, and they didn’t accidentally leave some vocal in on the instrumental ‘need a fix’ part, everything sounds subtly different, and clearer. It’s just a mix that’s had *more time* spent on it, and while I can’t point to many individual distinct differences, it is *far* superior in mono.
Side two opens with Martha My Dear, which couldn’t be more different, even though it too has metrical irregularities (note the five-beat bar at the end of the first line, to allow that lovely ascending phrase). One of the really interesting things about the White Album is that we see the band members trying out their solo styles, and this is *exactly* the kind of thing McCartney did in his early solo career, especially the ridiculously-out-of-his-range notes in the middle section.
And indeed, it is a solo track, with McCartney playing piano, guitar, bass and drums. George Martin’s arrangement is spot-on here, with a lovely combination of ‘Northern’ brass band and ‘classical’ strings. The song is facile and empty, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else – it exists purely to sound pretty, and does the job exceedingly well.
I’m So Tired is one of my personal favourite Lennon songs, but doesn’t lend itself to very much analysis – I just love the anger in the bridge/choruses, which anyone who has suffered with insomnia will know all too well (at least Lennon, if he lay awake til 6AM, didn’t then have to get up and be in work a couple of hours later…). Lennon came up with very few lines much better than “Curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get”. The main difference between the mono and stereo versions is that McCartney’s harmony is louder.
Blackbird is an example of McCartney doing what he does best, but all too infrequently – writing very sparse, precise melodies that nonetheless carry an inordinate amount of emotional weight. This kind of folky song is something McCartney more or less abandoned once he discovered the power ballad, and it’s made his music much worse.
The only real difference between the mono and stereo versions here is that the bird noises are dubbed on in a slightly different place.
McCartney himself has said that this was based on Bach’s Bouree in E minor, but I really can’t hear much of a similarity at all, and it seems more to be the kind of song that arises from playing with tunings (as the band were at the time) than out of conscious emulation of another piece. Much like his later claims that the song was about civil rights (something he only started saying *after* various over-interpreting analysts read that into the song) this seems to me like McCartney retroactively trying to make his songs seem more profound than they would otherwise appear.
However, the song *does* contain baroque elements, which makes the segue into Piggies (also the second of three animal-themed songs) all the stronger. I think I’m the only person I know of who actually thinks that Piggies is Harrison’s strongest contribution to the White Album by quite a long way.
The song gets a bad press, primarily because it’s seen as Harrison being preachy, but to be honest the attitude of ‘look at those squares with their boring lives’ was pretty much endemic in popular music around this time – if we’re going to attack songwriters for that, we probably have to start with Ray Davies, but *everyone* was doing it, from Frank Zappa (Plastic People etc) to Pete Seeger (Little Boxes).
The Ray Davies comparison is actually quite apt, because this track could quite easily fit onto The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, the title track to which it resembles musically (both bands were recording at the same time, so it’s unlikely either was inspired by the other). A large part of the interest comes from Chris Thomas’ pseudo-baroque harpsichord and ‘cello parts, but the various joke voices Harrison puts on (this is one of his finest vocal performances, one of the few times he really shows just what he could do as a vocalist – every verse is sung in a different voice) show that Harrison wasn’t taking himself too seriously here – the song is clearly intended to be something along the lines of Harrison’s friends The Bonzo Dog Band (whose Equestrian Statue has something of the same feel as this track) rather than a profound moralistic statement.
And seen in that perspective, this is quite a fun little grotesquerie – a caricature, yes, but nowhere near as mean-spirited as its detractors would claim.
The main difference between the mono and stereo mixes is that the pig noises are in different places.
Rocky Racoon is just a bad shaggy dog story. It’s pleasant enough, but I’ve done more than 3200 words on this album already and I’m not even half-way through yet, so I’m not going to waste space on it.
Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition for the Beatles, and he really could have done with some help from the other band members – if nothing else, this is one of the longest songs on the album (at 3:45 the mono version is longer than anything on the first disc except Dear Prudence and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the stereo version plays slower and thus even longer), and would have been better if it had been cut at around 2:45 (where the false ending comes in).
This is one of the few examples of the mono version being definitely inferior to the stereo version. While neither is by any means a masterpiece, the mono version is sped up by what sounds like a tone, giving Ringo’s voice a very peculiar sound, and most of the instruments sound vaguely Joe Meeked, but not in a good way. The violin part also continues even longer after the end of the song. Given that Ringo had been working on this song for three years, it wouldn’t have hurt the rest of the band to spend a bit more time to get a performance that wasn’t so sloppy. Thankfully Ringo’s material has been served better in his solo career, where at least at first he made some perfectly pleasant records.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road is almost entirely a solo Paul performance, with Ringo on drums, and is just a twelve-bar blues with two lines of vocal. Not much really to talk about. The mono version differs from the stereo only in that there are no handclaps on the beginning.
I Will – and coming to the end of side two, we find the strong songs appearing again. The first disc of the White Album is incredibly well-sequenced (something that’s not true for the inferior second disc) with the first and last few songs of each side being by far the best, so even when one’s listened to some fairly weak filler tracks, each side leaves the impression of being great.
One of McCartney’s loveliest melodies – though spoiled a little bit by one of his more incoherent lyrics – the arrangement here shows the typical White Album playfulness, with Lennon and Starr adding percussion, while the bass role is filled in by McCartney’s ‘vocal bass guitar’. The main difference between the mono and stereo versions is that this vocal bass doesn’t come in until the second verse in the mono mix – a definite improvement, as it makes the track less static overall.
And Julia is probably Lennon’s most personal song to that point, to the extent that I believe this is the only Lennon ‘Beatles’ track not to feature any of the other band members (as opposed to McCartney who regularly recorded either solo or with orchestral backing, or even Harrison who did a couple of tracks with only Indian musicians) – Lennon was far more attached to the idea of the Beatles as a unit than any of the others, and deeply resented McCartney knocking off tracks without him.
But here he’s performing entirely solo – and not only that, for, I think, the first time since A Hard Day’s Night, he’s doing a mostly single-tracked vocal without any real processing on it. Other than the harmonies and overlaps, this is the plainest vocal Lennon ever recorded, leaving in the cracks in his voice and the occasional slightly flat note. It’s a very *human* recording – down to the slight guitar flubs around the 0:20 mark (he appears to have tried to get slightly more complex with the simple picking pattern and to have thought better of it).
Of course, given that this is a love song simultaneously to his dead mother (with whom he had an… unconventional… relationship) and to his new lover Yoko Ono (‘ocean child’ is a fairly literal translation of ‘Yoko’), Lennon treating the song as so personal is understandable. In fact, much like much of Lennon’s early solo work, this is *so* personal that one feels almost uncomfortable listening to it, almost voyeuristic. But the song is so stunning that one is compelled to listen to every note anyway.
The only noticeable difference between the mono and stereo versions is that some of Lennon’s breaths are slightly louder in the mono mix.
At the end of disc one, what is immediately noticeable is how re-energised Lennon has become by the period in Rishikesh, away from the distractions of both the city and of his disintegrating personal life. In 1967 he’d written practically nothing – only five songs in total, in what was supposedly one of the Beatles’ most creative years as a group. Here, though, he’s already contributed six, including some of the best songs he ever recorded. McCartney, meanwhile, has become lazy, engaging in shallow pastiche and knocked-off jokes, and only rarely hitting the heights he’s capable of.
Side two starts with Birthday. Famously dismissed by Lennon as ‘a piece of garbage’, it’s slightly better than that. Written in the studio by McCartney and Lennon directly after watching the film The Girl Can’t Help It (a film which has special importance for Beatles fans as it features Eddie Cochran singing Twenty Flight Rock, the song which was essentially McCartney’s ‘audition piece’ to join the Quarrymen, but which also featured among others Little Richard and Gene Vincent) the song is one of the very few Beatles songs to be based around a straight twelve-bar blues. The band are obviously having fun – especially Lennon, despite his later comments, who also apparently played all the guitars on this track, although some sound like McCartney’s style – and it’s infectious enough to make the track listenable, if hardly up to the band’s normal standards.
The mono mix sounds stronger than the stereo, and reveals a lot more details, such as McCartney’s count-in/screams during the drum break, and the really bizarre reverb added to the piano in parts, which continues after the end of the song proper.
Yer Blues, the second twelve-bar (more-or less – the structure is slightly thrown out by the out-of-time guitar break after ‘if I ain’t dead already’) song in a row. In this case, the song is both a sincere cry for help and a parody of the same, in much the same way as I’m A Loser. Lennon seemed to feel up to this point that he couldn’t honestly express his depressive and self-loathing tendencies, something he only really gained the ability to do once he went through Primal Scream therapy – up until then he had to slather it in a thick layer of irony.
(This was actually more common in the Brit-blues people than is commonly thought these days – Peter Green, one of the few Brit-blues musicians to be anything other than a stale pasticheur, has expressed bafflement that his similarly depressive ‘Man Of The World’ was taken as entirely straight, pointing out that he was singing the ‘my life’ parts in a stereotypically Yiddish voice).
The song also bears quite a resemblance to You Can’t Do That (astonishingly, one of only two twelve-bars Lennon had written prior to this, the other being The Word), with its traded-off guitar solos (once again, Lennon is presumably the one who is just slashing chords, while Harrison is the more melodic solo), but the whole track feels far more of a joke than that one, right down to the very obvious splice after the guitar solo – here the start of a different take is pasted in as the end of this one (although Lennon’s vocals are mixed out, but you can hear the bleed on the other tracks). Not quite successful as either a genuine blues track or a joke, the track obviously meant a great deal to Lennon, as at his first two solo live performances (on the Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus and Live Peace In Toronto) he performed it (though this may have been as much to do with the ease with which it could be taught to a scratch band as anything else).
The mono version lasts several seconds longer than the stereo.
Mother Nature’s Son is another of McCartney’s pastoral attempts, very much a musical relation of Blackbird, though incongruously featuring a brass band (which normally conjures up much more industrial images). This is definitely the weaker song, though, being one of the half-finished songs (gorgeous melody, practically no lyrics) that would be McCartney’s stock in trade for the next few years. (The long scat sections show you exactly why Nilsson covered this one).
The mono version has much more reverb put on McCartney’s voice from the second verse onwards, allowing the vocal to live in the same sonic world as the brass band, rather than being distanced from it as it is in the stereo version, giving the track a much more unified feel. The result is still filler, though, albeit nice filler, and it’s a shame that this kept Lennon’s similar-but-better Child Of Nature off the album.
And Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey is yet more filler. It’s enjoyable-enough filler, especially the way McCartney’s bell-shaking interacts with Ringo’s drumming, and the babble of overlapping ‘come on’ vocals towards the end (much more prominent here than on the stereo mix), but this is the kind of thing that would normally have never got past Beatles quality control, and at this point – with this being the fourth song in a row that doesn’t feel like it’s got a real reason for existing – the goodwill that one comes into the album with is fast evaporating.
Luckily Sexy Sadie is much better – although most of the interesting musical points (the leaps into falsetto, the backing vocals) come from the song Lennon was ‘writing off’, I’ve Been Good To You by Smokey Robinson (the first two lines of which, in particular, are almost word-for-word and note-for-note identical with Lennon’s song).
Written about the Maharishi, this is easily Lennon’s bitterest song to this point, with lines like “you’ll get yours yet, however big you think you are” carrying a real venom – possibly more than the Maharishi deserved given the minor nature of the supposed transgression which caused his break with Lennon. Surprisingly, given Harrison’s apparent dislike of the song (he remained a supporter of the Maharishi until the end of his life) this features some very nice guitar work from him, in the arpeggiated style that would later become a major feature of much of Abbey Road.
On the mono version, pretty much *everything* sounds like it’s been put through a Leslie speaker, something that’s far less noticeable on the stereo one, and the bass comes in much later.
Helter Skelter, another piece of nothing, has some of the most significant differences between the mono and stereo versions. The lead guitar is almost inaudible in the mono version for the first half, which sounds much more like a straight band performance (albeit with a ton of reverb) than the overdub-heavy stereo version. After the false ending, the fade back is a different section of the performance, with sound effects over the top, and finishes more than a minute earlier than the stereo version. All told the mono version is a much tighter, more structured track, rather than the freeform wankery of the stereo mix, but that’s not enough to save what is ultimately a non-song – especially since the mono version is missing Ringo’s exclamation of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”, easily the best thing about the track.
And Long Long Long rounds off side three with easily the strongest song on this deeply underwhelming side. Recorded essentially as a live performance by Harrison (acoustic guitar), McCartney (hammond), Starr and Chris Thomas (piano), with only a few simple overdubs, the arrangement here still sounds much fuller than on many of the more complex earlier tracks, in part due to little touches like the out-of-nowhere honky-tonk piano in the middle eight, or the acoustic lead guitar part played with enough harmonics to make it sound almost like a sitar. Of course the most famous aspect of this song (the rattling wine bottle on top of the hammond organ at the end) was an accident, but even so, this track makes a rather lovely end to an utterly underwhelming side three.
(Has anyone ever tried comparing the structures of double albums with those of Doctor Who four-parters? The third part always seems by far the most tedious in both cases).
The mono version of this has what sounds like a different vocal take for the lower-in-the-mix part of Harrison’s double-tracked vocal – it comes in two ‘longs’ later than on the stereo mix, and sounds slightly different from then on, though it’s hard to be sure.
Side four opens with Revolution 1, an odd choice – this was the early attempt at what later became Revolution, the B-side that had already been released before the album came out, and would normally have been regarded as an outtake. That this version was included is possibly because of Lennon’s indecision about one line – “count me out” in this version being “count me out – in”. When the band had performed Revolution on the David Frost show to promote the single, Lennon had changed the lyric back to ‘out – in’, and they’d also included the ‘bom-shoo-be-doo-wop’ backing vocals from this version (the David Frost version is actually my favourite performance of this song, and it’s a shame it’s never seen a full legitimate release (or even been bootlegged much)).
This is definitely a weaker version of the song than the B-side version, but it’s still a great song, and one of the only overtly political statements the Beatles ever made as a band. Some of the ‘revolutionaries’ of the time objected bitterly to Lennon’s seemingly-conservative attitude here, with Nina Simone in particular berating Lennon in an answer-record (though one can see how a need for ‘revolution’ might have seemed more pressing in a USA that was still electing segregationist politicians to national office and sending a generation off to fight in imperialist wars, than in a Britain going through an economic boom and with one of the most small-l liberal governments in history in power (note for my Lib Dem friends – I’d argue that the first Wilson government was one of the very few truly liberal governments at least in social policy – legalising homosexuality and abortion, while getting rid of capital punishment and theatre censorship and introducing new universities) ). In the USA revolutionary rhetoric was driven by a genuine anger against real injustices, while in the UK (not to diminish the real injustices which of course did and do take place) the anger was mostly middle-class students wanting to upset mummy and daddy by worshipping genocidal maniacs as ‘countercultural’ figures.
So while Revolution/Revolution 1 might have seemed a deeply conservative track in the US, over here its measured approach was eminently reasonable – and it’s notable that almost as soon as Lennon moved to the US, he became for a while convinced of the rightness of the revolutionaries’ cause. Revolution 1 shows Lennon’s ambiguity on the matter more openly, but Revolution is still the better track.
The mono version of this track has a more extended fade, and one can clearly hear in this extended fade many of the sounds which would be used in Revolution #9, which we will come to shortly.
Honey Pie is one of McCartney’s pastiches, of the kind of 1920s song that his dad’s band would have played. But while he had a genuine affection for this kind of music, one suspects that the proximate influence was the success of Tiny Tim, whose Rudy Valee impersonation McCartney seems himself to be impersonating at times.
(Tiny Tim was, of course, far from alone in his resurrection of 1920s novelty songs, and mention must here again be made of the Beatles’ friends the Bonzo Dog Band, who had started out as a 1920s revivalist band performing songs like I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight, before the New Vaudeville Band stole their act and trumpet player…)
The song itself fits perfectly into its idiom, with the lyrics, about a local girl who has made it big and left the small North of England world behind her, being reminiscent of many, many other songs (see for example Jake Thackray’s Kirkstall Road Girl). It’s enjoyable enough, though hardly McCartney’s best, and shows that the album is now back on track.
Savoy Truffle, the first rocker for several tracks, shows George doing much better at creating an interesting riff-based rocker than his bandmates. Again performed with Chris Thomas but without Lennon, this driving rocker is in a style Harrison was briefly enamoured with – the track is almost fingerprint-identical at points to Sour Milk Sea, which Harrison wrote and produced for Jackie Lomax around this time – but never really returned to. A shame, as this is one of the Beatles’ less embarrassing attempts at hard rock, helped by the Fats Domino-esque horn section.
Cry Baby Cry begins a run of three Lennon tracks to finish the album, which could not be more different musically, but all of which have a slightly skewed take on childhood. We see Lennon here returning to the Lewis Carrol and nursery rhymes which had inspired I Am The Walrus, here starting off with ‘the queen of hearts she made some tarts’ as a basis for a very eerie song which never quite makes sense until the last verse (“at twelve o’clock a meeting round the table for a seance in the dark/with voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark”). One of Lennon’s better tracks for the album, this leads into McCartney’s Can You Take Me Back improvisation (from the I Will sessions, which also produced the Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias track on Anthology 3), which in turn leads to…
Revolution #9. This is by far the most controversial recording in the Beatles’ entire career, totally unlike anything they’d ever done, and unlike anything by any of their peers except maybe Frank Zappa (when I first heard this track, my only point of reference for this).
Most people’s attitude to this kind of music can be summed up in Richard Herring’s line – “I never used to like that experimental, atonal stuff until someone locked me up in a room and played it at me for several days, but I get it now, although my psychiatrist says I’ve got Stockhausen syndrome”. I like mid-twentieth century experimental music of this kind myself – I love Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen, and others who were experimenting with what does and doesn’t count as ‘music’, and I personally enjoy Revolution #9 immensely – while I don’t have the musical vocabulary to talk about it in any meaningful way (my musical training at university extended to one year of a Popular Music course, which gave me tools to talk about three-minute pop songs, but not so much collages made out of tapes of American football crowds, backwards recordings of orchestras, and people reciting the names of dances, among many other elements) I can tell that despite its seemingly random nature, this is a carefully constructed piece. It flows, and has a ‘story’ to it, with peaks and troughs that come in semi-regular intervals. It’s put together by someone who has a very firm understanding of sonic structure, even if it’s apparently structureless.
But even if you don’t like it, even if it doesn’t appeal to you at all, I’d suggest that we’d all think less of the Beatles if they *hadn’t* done something like this, at least once. That the most famous and popular pop band (and the Beatles were definitely, above all, *POP* music, with an audience made up largely of teenage girls) of all time would put out a track so resolutely difficult as this sums up just why they were so special. Of the hundred million or so people who’ve bought this album, my guess is that ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand listened to this track no more than once or twice, and hated it. But the other thousand may well have loved it. And even those who didn’t love it will have been forced to think about their preconceptions about what does and doesn’t count as music.
Just by introducing *that many* people to avant-garde concepts they otherwise would never have known existed – by broadening their awareness of what is possible, even if they chose never to look at those possibilities – this track by itself does as much to justify the Beatles’ existence as any entire album they made.
The mono mix of this is actually a fold-down of the stereo mix, so there are no significant differences, but the clarity of this CD release allows me for the first time to properly make out the conversation between Alistair Taylor and George Martin that starts the track.
And to finish off both this album and the Beatles mono releases, we have Good Night, a lovely little lullaby by John that’s deliberately over-orchestrated into absurdity by Martin (it sounds actually exactly like the orchestrations on Let It Be about which McCartney complained so vociferously). By far Ringo’s best vocal on a Beatles record, this is a very silly, but sweet track, and a perfect closer to a wonderfully *im*perfect album.
And that’s the lot as far as the mono reviews go. I’m probably going to do the final two (stereo-only) albums in one long post, about this long, as their recording overlapped and the releases were backwards from the recording dates.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these, and if I do (as Pillock in particular keeps suggesting) expand these into a book, I hope you buy it – they’ve been a lot of fun but also a lot of work.
And if you’ve not had enough of the White Album by now, here’s two Spotify playlists. This one by my friend Tilt containing covers of every song (yes, including Revolution #9), while this one contains eight of the songs I’ve mentioned as influences or inspirations in this post.
Good night, sleep tight.