Saturday, September 26, 2009
Following the tension filled months that produced the White Album, the usual enthusiasm for group related business all but disappeared. Apple Corporation, originally conceived by Brian Epstein as a structure to help shelter Beatle revenue from Britain’s excessive 96 percent tax on top earners had been expanded to encompass a record label (with EMI still handling distribution), film division and an extremely wasteful electronics component headed by self-proclaimed inventor, Alexis Madras aka “Magic Alex”.
Only the record label saw any profit, while the rest of the operation pissed away money at an alarming rate. What John and Paul had initially touted as a form of Western Communism ended up as a vehicle for every type of lunatic idea that you could possibly imagine. According to Lennon, those in the inner sanctum were, “living off of them, eating and drinking like it was fucking Rome."
Utopia was nowhere in sight.
Amidst all of this, McCartney thought that he would make a last ditch effort at rallying the band around a new project to kick off 1969. The plan seemed simple enough. Rehearse and record new songs, then take the stage to perform the material live in concert at London ’s Roundhouse theatre and broadcast the result.
This was not to be.
Returning to the two guitars/bass and drums format and performing tracks live was one thing. Allowing a film crew to document the entire episode was a miscalculation. Even in the best of circumstances, arguments will ensue amongst groups involved in a creative endeavor. Had they considered the matter more closely, they could have compromised and just did a concert movie when they were ready to go.
Hindsight is that special place from which the view is always crystal clear
Still battle weary from the previous year, they trooped into Twickenham Film Studios on January 2, 1969. Hours of footage reveal a group of people whose relations are in shambles. There are some genuinely spontaneous moments involving jams on old rock and R & B standards and the usual silliness that people who have been close for a long time are wont to indulge in. The banter seems quite forced though, no doubt mustered for the benefit of the camera. Harrison is sullen throughout, quite disinterested in anything on the agenda. Lennon seems glassy eyed and semi-stoned, with his soon-to-be wife ever present. Ringo sits patiently while the discussions ramble on around him, weary but hitting his mark when the music starts. Paul plays the role of musical director, cheerleader and seems to be the lone interested party in the whole undertaking. His bossiness ignited George’s temper early on, though it was a violent argument with Lennon, during which punches were thrown, that caused Harrison to pack up his guitar and quit the scene for a few days.
What began as a promising idea to ease the band back into live performance, quickly dissolved into bitter acrimony.
Despite the tension, there was still excellent material on the table. It’s a pity that they weren’t treating the work with the same degree of care as they had previously. Paul had two outstanding contributions in “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” that were seriously compromised by the “play it live and capture the take” philosophy. His move to piano for these performances meant that bass duties fell into John’s lap and his playing was sloppy and careless, at best. Further to this, he openly disliked these selections, mocking the quasi religious style of "Let It Be". Lennon came up with some bizarre parody lyrics (squeaking turds of whiskey over me) and at one point was noisily barking "Boof! Boof! Boof!" instead of the harmony part that he should have been singing.
They still managed to record a lot of good music.
“Get Back” went through several changes in arrangement and lyrical content before it was deemed finished. Inspired by busking Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” and the vocal mannerisms used in that tune, Paul turns in one of their late period gems, featuring great, nimble fingered electric piano solos from Billy Preston. Ringo drives the band with a snappy, snare driven gallop, while both Harrison and McCartney employ very economic lines to support the rhythm. Lennon takes up the lead and creates very tasteful coloring along with his signature solo.
Before settling on the brief sketch involving Jo Jo and Sweet Loretta, “Get Back” had “joke” lyrics that amounted to a parody of the anti-immigration rants of British politician Enoch Powell. Bootleg releases pegged the early takes of the song with the politically incorrect title of “No Pakistanis”. Another version was sung entirely in Reeperbahn German, while the most entertaining of these is one that has Paul laughing throughout. One composing trick that they often used was to employ nonsense words over a new melody line, with an eye toward replacing them when inspiration struck. This would keep the arrangement intact until the final draft was in place.
Regardless of how it took shape, the end result topped singles charts worldwide and sold by the truckload.
Billy Preston's presence made a huge difference.
John brought in “Don’t Let Me Down”, which benefited greatly from the band’s input. Straightforward and impassioned, it is among the first of many songs that would be addressed directly to Ms. Ono. Lennon’s raw vocal is balanced by some nice three part harmony on the chorus, while the musical structure of the bridge has McCartney’s fingerprints all over it. His busy bass fretwork is, complete with octave leaps, a great complement to Starr’s subtle cymbal work. Preston weighs in with tasteful keys to lift the piece even higher. The rooftop performance of this is one of the high points of the Let It Be film, even if John forgets a line and quickly ad-libs some gibberish to fill the gap. George Harrison was heavily influenced by Robbie Robertson’s style of playing at this time, having spent the latter part of ’68 in Woodstock , hanging out with Dylan and the Band. Robertson himself was, in turn, emulating Curtis Mayfield’s instrumental touches. Have a listen to the opening riff and much of the guitar coloring in “Don’t Let Me Down” and you’ll hear very definite evidence of this.
Remarkably, this was relegated to the B-side of the “Get Back” single.
If you really delve into the reams of film and tape that comprise the Get Back Saga, there are some very interesting curios to be found. You do have to wade through interminable reels of discussion and endless takes of “Dig a Pony” to find them though. Should you happen to get your hands on the multi-disc bootleg set (The Get Back Journals) and start cursing Paul out for take 67 of any particular song, you’re blaming the wrong Beatle for your indisposition.
It was John Lennon who pushed the band to strictly adhere to the “live with no overdubs” routine and therefore he was responsible for adding hours of frustration to an already gloomy atmosphere.
Dredging up “Across the Universe” was symptomatic of Lennon’s resistance to present new material. It is a truly decent song, though a definitive treatment was not achieved in the first attempts to record it the previous year. They fared no better during these sessions. Ultimately, what you hear on “Let It Be” is the same version that landed on the “Our World” compilation back in ’68. When Phil Spector was brought in to do reconstructive surgery on the Get Back tapes, he took the original recording, slowed it down, removed the bird sound effects, high backing vocals, added strings and choral voices and made it slightly more tolerable.
Arguably, a much better arrangement could have been hit upon if they had employed the same tough-minded approach to crafting the songs as in the early days. Getting back to the roots would have worked much better if everyone was willing to put in the effort.
Harrison offered up a number of great songs for inclusion, only to be denied due to the already full slate of John and Paul’s compositions. “For You Blue” is a forgettable 12 bar blues, with some wonky slide playing from Lennon and “I Me Mine” is interesting, although neither were of the standard of the majestic songs with which he would fill All Things Must Pass in 1970.
Things weren’t all bad during this time. “I’ve Got a Feeling” was a true collaborative effort, taking John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” fragment and welding it together with the main body of Paul’s idea. This “Frankensong” turned out pretty well and is one of the better rock tunes in the set. “One After 909” dated back to a very early chapter of the Lennon/McCartney songbook and its 1969 revival is light years ahead of the clumsy recording that they made in 1963, which was wisely taken no further. That discarded take was made available (officially) with the first installment of their six disc Anthology series.
Speaking of 1963, “Two of Us” started out as a musical ringer of the style that they made famous as Beatlemania first made its way across the UK and into Europe . John and Paul share a mic and some laughs as Paul sings the bridge in an exaggerated Elvis impersonation. Ringo slides back into Merseybeat mode with those famous drum stutters on snare and high hats that punctuated earlier tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Twist and Shout”. This arrangement was soon abandoned in favor of a slower, more folk/acoustic approach, with bittersweet lyrics that almost sound like Paul is making one last attempt to reach out to his soon to be estranged musical partner.
You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead.
McCartney has said that much of the subject matter was inspired by his (then) new relationship with Linda Eastman. Lines like the one above don’t seem to fit that scenario. Whatever the intent, it is a very underrated song with excellent Everly Brothers harmonies. They even saw fit to launch into “Bye Bye Love” following one of the many rehearsals devoted to this one and you can hear Paul throw in a “Take it, Phil”, jokingly referring to Phil Everly in one rendition.
When editing the “Let It Be” film, it seems that many light hearted moments were removed by director Michael Lindsay Hogg.
Pure emotion seems to ooze from every part of Paul’s “The Long and Winding Road ”. Featuring poignant lines, it could almost be construed as another message to John regarding the crossroads that they had reached in their creative partnership. This is not established nor has the author offered any insight as to what inspired him to write this heartfelt piece. Demoed in late 1968 (with the only copy given to Alastair Taylor as gift for his wife), the full band treatment given to the song during the sessions in ’69 is excellent with the exception of John’s bass part, which sounds as if he’s wandering around in an attempt to find the notes. He really should have listened a bit more closely to what McCartney was offering, though it’s probably fair to say that coming up with an inventive bass figure for a tune that he wasn’t particularly excited about was quite low on his list of priorities. More than likely, with Billy Preston on hand, they may have planned to have him play piano and thus, move Paul back to bass for the filmed performance. (This didn’t pan out, though)
When Phil Spector was working with the track, his solution to the weak bass performance was to simply bury it in an avalanche of syrupy strings and choral voices. Interestingly enough, at the same time that Phil was doing orchestral overdubs, McCartney was in a studio down the hall putting the finishing touches on his self titled debut solo album. Had anyone cared to ask, McCartney could have re-recorded the bass part. Ringo came in around that time to do some tracking of percussion with Phil, though relations in the Beatles camp were poisonous at that point with Paul very close to making the announcement that he was leaving the group. He would also unsuccessfully try to block this version of the song for release. Despite Spector’s augmentation, the song would be the last Beatle single and another number one.
This was all about a year and change away from the original sessions.
Glyn Johns was first tasked with assembling a listenable album out of the hours of tape that were produced by the group. John and Paul reportedly pointed to the endless reels that had piled up and pretty much said, “There they are, go to it.” Working with instructions to maintain the “live with no overdubs” edict, he assembled the first mix of Get Back and submitted it for the band’s approval.
Lennon: "The tape ended up like the bootleg version. We didn’t want to know about it anymore, so we just left it to Glyn Johns
and said, “Here, mix it.” That was the first time since the first album that we didn’t want to have anything to do with it. None of us could be bothered going in. Nobody called anybody about it, and the tapes were left there. Glyn Johns did it. We got an acetate in the mail and we called each other and said, “What do you think?” We were going to let it out in really shitty condition. I didn’t care. I thought it was good to let it out and show people what had happened to us, we can’t get it together; we don’t play together any more; you know, leave us alone. The bootleg version is what it was like, and everyone
was probably thinking they’re not going to fucking work on it. There were 29 hours of tape, so much that it was like a movie. Twenty takes of everything, because we were rehearsing and taking everything. Nobody could face looking at it."
It’s not hard to see why they balked at releasing it in this form. I have a vinyl bootleg copy of that version and “flat” is the best description of the performances contained therein. Embarrassing, considering the high standard that they had maintained throughout their recording history. Johns did what he could with the material, though what it really needed was editing and re-tracking of parts, which was strictly ruled out, if only for the time being. He prepared a second mix, which again was not deemed fit for public consumption.
In the meantime, months rolled by and the Beatles decided to scrap work on the project in favor of making a new record, titled after the very street on which stood the iconic building where they had spent much of the decade producing music that the entire world would embrace. This would present a dilemma for the quartet as they now had two full length discs in the can. Get Back stayed on the shelf while the accompanying film was being edited.
One point that had fascinated me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of songs that were attempted and recorded during this period. Determined to hear 1969 updates of Love Me Do and covers of Dylan tunes plus future Beatle solo songs worked up by the group, I sought out as much bootlegged material as I could find. One of the first half decent ones that I scored was a fair sounding record called Watching Rainbows. It had lo-fi jams of “ All Things Must Pass ”, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and some undeveloped Lennon tunes (“Madman”, “Watching Rainbows”) though it was pretty entertaining overall.
Warning: Some of the selections from these sessions may look great on paper but a lot add up to nothing more than jokey snippets, half assed attempts at things that trail off and a lot of “I don’t know the words, but fuck it, let’s do this anyway”.
You could assemble a pretty decent compilation of complete and listenable takes without too much effort as the material is much more readily available, thanks to the internet revolution. If you are extremely tenacious and enjoy all of the extended discussion and silliness that comes with working out musical ideas, it’s at your fingertips.
LET IT BE
Decisions were made to upgrade the finished product from television documentary to the big screen and call it “Let It Be”. Having worked with Lennon on his “Instant Karma” single in early 1970, Phil Spector was then asked to take the year old tapes and try to spin straw into gold.
Handing a stripped down, back to basics group of tapes to one of the most notorious over-producers in the business may have seemed like quite a contradictory move, though Spector’s work was pretty decent overall. Only his treatment of “The Long and Winding Road ” and “Across the Universe” come across as bloated missteps. He used the best rooftop takes, did a nice job on “Two of Us” and chopped out the useless ”all I want is you” passages that prefaced the verses in “Dig A Pony”. Phil’s handling of “I Me Mine” was clever as well, extending the song by adding a repeat of the chorus.
In short, he put the best face on the material that he was given. His burying technique on “ Winding Road ”, while overly syrupy, did cover the horrendous bass mistakes, though McCartney was right in his assertion that his work was being tampered with. The Disney choir and kitchen sink augmentation really robbed the song of personality.
Let It Be (the album) was released in May of 1970 in conjunction with the movie. Initially, it hit the stores as a box set with a fantastic 160 page book containing great photos, courtesy of Ethan Russell, and dialogue from the film. It was then slimmed down to a gatefold sleeve (no book) and later issues eliminated the fold out jacket.
The group was officially pronounced dead a month prior to this, though they had really been cold since the completion of Abbey Road.
You want my opinion? They should have cleaned up the rooftop concert and put that out in it's entirety.
Hey, where was the goddamned film crew when Revolver was being recorded?
Let It Be captures very little of the original spark that pushed this musical aggregation to unprecedented heights.
Epilogue: Hey, it's 2003. Pack a flashlight, a couple of shovels and follow me.
McCartney’s desire to deal with unfinished business (and settle scores) was one of the main drivers of the Let It Be…Naked project, which frankly happened because George had by this time joined Lennon in the “great beyond”. Paul was now free to have Phil Spector’s work undone, assembling a team to remove the layers of orchestration from the masters and cleverly restore some of the original takes through the magic of Pro Tools editing software. This mainly involved fixing bass parts and cleaning up some of the rough edges ( i.e. welding an exceptional portion of take 23 on to take 54.)
Quite listenable, though they should have ditched the useless “fly on the wall” disc and included one that was packed with jams, the complete rooftop concert or any number of gems that currently sit in the EMI vaults. Arguably, this is the most documented period of their storied career, so there is much to draw on.
Perhaps now that the box sets have hit the stores, the good people at Apple could get serious about assembling a more palatable version of the Let it Be movie for DVD release, include all of the fun footage and give collectors something of value to spend their hard earned dollars on.
Just a thought.
There's a great bootleg of a radio broadcast of the Get back album, complete with commercials from that time. What was it called and which radio station originally aired the LP?
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Glancing at the cover of this colorful soundtrack LP, you'll notice that the cartoon John Lennon seems to be thoroughly enjoying the Dio concert that he's attending in his mind.
Fifteen years before that band was even formed!
Quite a visionary.
Contractual obligation reared its ugly head once again in the form of a film commitment. This time out, the band would not even have to act naturally. (or talk, as actors voiced their parts) United Artists and King Features produced an animated film based on the perceived image of the lads circa 1967. Yellow Submarine was a huge smash with critics and fans in the summer of 1968 and still holds up as a pretty entertaining flick. The Beatles were only marginally involved in this project, appearing briefly at the end in a short (cheesy) scripted segment.
Their musical contribution was also slight, to say the least, as they dug up three rejected tunes from sessions dating back to spring/summer of ’67. The fourth "new" song, cut at the same time as the “Lady Madonna” single in February 1968, is the highlight. "Hey Bulldog" is an excellent, off the cuff Lennon tune with a cutting solo courtesy of Harrison’s SG. The brooding, bluesy piano /guitar riff and some wild vocal improvisation at the end make this a fun tune to listen to. McCartney's bass lines are first rate.
Georges Harrison and Martin feature prominently on this record, with the whole second side devoted to the orchestrations of the latter. Harrison ’s two tunes don’t amount to much, though I do love the bass work on “Only A Northern Song”, which was rejected for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper. Somewhat cynical in tone, the lyrics reflect the malaise associated with his diminished role within the group during that time. “It’s All Too Much” has a terrific feedback-laden intro and then proceeds to drone on for a while with the over simplistic summations of one who is entranced by the lysergic experience, but doesn’t quite know how to put the whole thing into words. The whimsical and childlike appraisal of the sensory disruption caused by acid seemed to be much more prevalent in the approach of English writers. Syd Barrett's work on "Piper At the Gates of Dawn" is very much in this vein.
Show me that I'm everywhere and get me home for tea
Adding “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love” really didn’t amount to anything of value for collectors, although the stereo master for John’s anthem was used here instead of the poor, “electronically reprocessed stereo” copy that landed on the US version of Magical Mystery Tour.
Word has it that a five song EP release was originally planned, which would have used the four new songs, plus “Across the Universe”. This actually reached the mastering stage before it was decided to include additional material and release the whole mess as a full length album, with “Universe” scratched from the list.
This project was not something that was taken seriously by the group. When initially informed about it, their response was to file any garbage that they recorded and set it aside for the soundtrack.
Curiously, the late 90s saw a major reconstruction of all of the Beatle tracks that were originally featured in the movie. The work involved both remixing and remastering these tunes, ditching the George Martin instrumentals and putting out a new CD (Yellow Submarine" Songtrack") that would serve a s a compliment to the refurbished digital re-release of the movie.
Time well spent.
There are two distinct differences between the original US and UK issues and their corresponding album cover art. What are they? Did this LP hit number one?
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
THE BEATLES (aka The White Album)
Fall of 1968 was an incredibly fortunate time for rock fans, with major releases from the Stones, Kinks and Jimi Hendrix. One of the most anticipated discs of that year came from The Beatles. It was the first full length album issued by the group since Sgt. Pepper and expectations were high.
They did not disappoint.
Released five years to the day after With the Beatles, the White Album finds the group making a concentrated effort to revive their ensemble playing skills. Augmentation was present, as well as painstaking hours of overdubbing and building tracks, though the production was scaled back in comparison to the extravaganzas of the previous year. Many believe that this 94 minute blow out is their finest hour, though it slots into second place behind Revolver in my rating system.
Subjectivity in ranking aside, it’s a fantastic collection of music that covers an ambitious range of styles.
No thematic unity is present here at all, though the sequencing of this patchy group of compositions provides the illusion of continuity. John and Paul, with George Martin, did a twenty four hour marathon, staying up and pouring over these tracks to achieve what they considered to be an acceptable running order. The end result was stellar, making it tough to imagine them queued any other way.
Double LPs were an anomaly in the rock world at that time. Eager to fulfill their EMI contract faster they pushed ahead with plans to record everything that they wrote while in Rishikesh, while adding new songs in the process.
Retreating to the Maharishi's Himalayan ashram did wonders for their creativity as they detoured away from LSD for that period, cleared their heads and wrote nearly thirty new songs amongst them. (Even Ringo came up with a tune!) With just their acoustic guitars and a stash of pot for a regular evening joint or two, the songcraft that was missing in the interregnum following Pepper returned with greater clarity.
Imagine the worth of 30 new songs by the Beatles in their creative prime.
For those that have listened to this LP a lot, you will notice a few clouds dotting the horizon as you settle into the first few selections. Steadily darkening, long shadows pass overhead that culminate in a full blown storm toward the end. Side four, in particular, creates a feeling of palpable tension, leading up to the free form chaos of "Revolution 9". In the midst of the tumult, the sky unexpectedly clears, soothing strings from an old Hollywood movie fill the room and the unmistakable voice of Richard Starkey warbles “Good Night”. Had they called it quits after this, it would have made a brilliant end to their recording career.
Tensions ran high during the sessions, with even good-natured Ringo quitting for a short period. Fighting is an inevitable component of being in a band and relations that were already tenuous began to further deteriorate. Lennon, snapped out of his acid reverie, set out to deliberately provoke his mates by bringing his new girlfriend into the studio.
She didn't leave.
Harrison was frustrated with his role as an "economy class Beatle" and the dominance of the Lennon/McCartney songs. Further to that, McCartney had very distinct ideas about what his finished product should sound like (and always had) and drove the others to distraction with his instructions on how to play their parts.
That long fuse attached to the powder keg was now lit and burning away toward the inevitable.
One of the happier episodes of this stretch was the trailer to the White Album, "Hey Jude" released with "Revolution" as it's flip side. Written for Julian Lennon in the wake of his parents split, it is one of the best things McCartney has ever done. The astounding nine weeks that it spent at the top of the charts was a testament to its melodic strength.
Prior to the commencement of proper studio work at Abbey Road, they convened at George Harrison's place in Esher to tape loose arrangements of their new songs. Listening to these demos is quite interesting, as it is essentially "The White Album Unplugged". There are also a few that didn't make the final cut ( "Circles", "Not Guilty", "Sour Milk Sea", "Junk" , "Child of Nature" and "What's the New Mary Jane?") which are definitely worth hearing. The atmosphere is light with mainly acoustic guitars providing the accompaniment.
Certainly sounds as if they had more fun doing this than the real thing.
Starting off strong was a tradition that was kept up with every release and “Back in the USSR ” signals a return from the cosmos back to good old fashioned rock and roll. Mixing Chuck Berry with the Beach Boys, McCartney weaves a clever lyric about the pleasures of being back behind the Iron Curtain. Considering that the former Soviet Union was still a closed shop and that the Cold War had drawn a firm line between democratic and totalitarian institutions, this tune must have completely confounded listeners. Keep in mind that there were spokesmen for the religious right in the US who actually believed that the Beatles were tools of communist propagandists, whose goal was to infiltrate the very corruptible minds of young people and turn them against the ideological tenants of democratic structure.
Interpretation of their work now became a matter of course as besotted, drug addled followers combed every inch of their record covers and lyrics, while at the same time listening for any revelatory “messages” buried in the music.
Have you ever seen the film “Imagine”? There’s a poignant scene that captures a deluded fan at the door of Lennon’s mansion in Tittenhurst. The poor guy obviously came a long way to hear his idol deliver some bad news:
There are no personal messages to anyone in any of these songs. It’s just words and music.
It’s a shame that Lennon wasn’t able to impart this information to Charlie Manson.
Manson believed that the songs on the White Album were a transatlantic memo to him, containing instructions to commit murder, make it look like it was racially motivated and trigger a revolution in the US where a race war would ensue. He envisioned this whole scenario as “Helter Skelter”. Out of the chaos and carnage, Manson and his “family” would emerge from their hideout in the desert to take control over whatever remained standing.
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
There was a much more down to earth reason for the senseless killing committed by Charlie’s zombie clan. He was an aspiring singer-songwriter, trying to secure a record deal via his connection to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Producer Terry Melcher was tapped to meet him, heard his material, felt an understandably bad vibe emanating from the career-criminal and bailed.
The sad part of the story is that Charlie knew where he lived and the first place that Manson drove his screwed up minions with orders to kill was Melcher’s address. He wasn’t home, though Sharon Tate and other guests at a dinner party being held at the residence were.
Neil Young summed it all up: “The guy doesn’t get a record deal, so he starts wipin’ people out. Dig that.”
Less dangerous fanatics were disappointed that the group had abandoned them on their sunny hallucinogenic trip this time around. The blank cover was then taken as an extreme about face and created another conspiratorial thread amongst followers as to what signals the group was sending out. Some opined that this was a reflection of the "back to the roots" movement that was steering rock music down to earth again, with the Beatles leading the charge.
Don’t follow leaders.
It was Richard Hamilton who conceived the notion of a blank cover. “Since Sgt. Pepper was so over the top,” he told McCartney, “I would be inclined to do a … plain white album.” Each copy could be numbered, he suggested, “to create the ironic situation of [an individually] numbered edition of something like five million copies.” The band’s name would be blind-stamped, white on white, onto the front cover, while an eponymous title would complete the minimalist feel.
Prior to taking up Hamilton's suggestion, "A Doll's House" was the tentative LP title with two alternate ideas in the running for cover art.
The blank cover was viewed as an extension of their sense of humor as well. Pranks played an integral part in much of what they created, though some of the the jokes here are tinged with bitter contempt. "Glass Onion" was designed specifically for that special group of listeners who look for things that aren't there. Having a laugh on the "nutters" as Lennon referred to them, he takes special care to name check a handful of recent Beatle songs, makes reference to a fairly decrepit stretch of the Mersey Banks at the south end of Liverpool where refuse from the sewers would wash up (the Cast Iron Shore) and lets everyone know who the Walrus was. Yanking the collective chains of record buyers may not have been the best move, considering how seriously people were taking their every utterance. It is a purposefully ugly song, with a great clipped, distorted rhythm guitar. I love the bass work in this one as well as the dreary string parts that drift in toward the end of the verses.
Few discs (of that time) have a dirtier guitar sound than this one.
When evaluating this record, it's easier to group the material in terms of what the main song writers had to say. Lennon seems to be all over the map, though quite inspired. "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" really gave everyone a chance to get back in the same room and play together, as did "Yer Blues", which features an unusually sloppy edit right after the solo (that dead cut right to a drum fill and back to the verse to fade). Rising to the challenge, despite the amount of takes needed to nail them ("Happiness" was finally ready after a reported 95 attempts) , the group soldiered on through the large stockpile of tunes. While joke songs like "Piggies" and "Rocky Raccoon" may not have seen the light of day before, they were now allowed on board due to the scope of the project. Unlike the out of focus sludge that they indulged in during the latter part of 1967, these numbers contained wit and while not quite top shelf, they certainly were entertaining.
McCartney played his lyrical cards quite close to the vest, turning in an array of very melodic ("Martha My Dear", "Blackbird", "I Will", "Mother Nature's Son") heavy ("Back in the USSR" , "Helter Skelter", "Birthday") and lightweight ("Honey Pie"," Ob-La -Di Ob -La- Da") music that revealed nothing of himself. He played everything but the brass and string parts on "Martha My Dear", and all but the drums on his cock rocking "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?".
"Helter Skelter" is four minutes of pure noise, with everyone thrashing their respective instruments, prefiguring the heavier fare that was the next logical step in rock's rapid evolution. The blueprint for Led Zeppelin had been drawn up by the high profile power trios (The Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jeff Beck Group) that now came to prominence. The Beatles were not suited for this style, though in an apparent effort to produce something nastier than the Who, McCartney pushed everyone to rattle the studio walls. One version went on for 27 minutes. Indeed, it is Ringo, who complains loudly about the "blisters on his fingers" from windmilling endlessly around the kit, thus providing another entry into the patois of their followers.
Depending on who you talk to, this is either a pointless mess or a shit-kicking rock song. Opinions differ, though it's amazing that this insanity came from the same four guys who recorded "I Want to Hold Your Hand".
Pity that someone didn't tell Manson the "genius" that the song title was the namesake of a spiral slide, particular to British Funfairs. Maybe he would have just taken the Family to the park and then for ice cream afterward.
Harrison's finest moment on The Beatles is "Long Long Long". Far more imaginative than some of his other attempts to express his passion for spirituality and to embrace his creator, the music oscillates between deep silence and crescendos of drum fills and raised voices. McCartney adds very tasteful, solemn organ fills throughout. Simply stated and beautiful in execution, it is a succinct message of love to someone who had been there all his life, undiscovered, until recently.
Speaking of which, George also brought Eric Clapton in to fire off a few salvos from his cherry red Gibson to add extra weight to the lumbering "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It is a good song, with one of those chord progressions that every rock band has pulled out of the hat and played for an extra twenty minutes to allow their lead guitarist all of the wanking room that anyone could possibly hope for. It never quite leaves the ground, though it begins with great promise. His acoustic performance of this one beats the album rendition with a stick.
Despite some comedy relief that shows up in places, there is an ominous cloud that hangs over much of what is presented here. Whether this was intentional or not really doesn't matter. Side one begins upbeat and ends with three songs that centre around sadness, killing and guns. Side three is a musical test case in bipolar mood swings from the party atmosphere of "Birthday" to the dirty, sweating and suicidal confessional that is "Yer Blues". Out of nowhere, comes the soft landing pad in "Mother Nature's Son" a paean to the pastoral pleasures of life.
The mono version of the White Album is of particular interest to those who are only familiar with the stereo mix. “Helter Skelter” is very different, with an alternate drum flourish after the break down toward the finish and no trick ending. “Don’t Pass Me By” in mono also sounds much changed from its stereo cousin. Contemporary listeners will have a lot of fun going back and forth between the tracks with the re-release of the catalogue in both formats.
Some of the best moments here come with the understated, acoustic based fare. Lennon improved his finger picking skills, courtesy of the tutelage of one Donovan Leitch while they were in India together. “Julia” was the result of these newfound techniques and is a heartfelt, honest statement of love, addressed to both the mother he had lost and his new partner, Yoko. (she is named in the lyric as Ocean Child). McCartney played producer as Lennon ran through his guitar part numerous times to get it down.
Similarly, McCartney’s “I Will” features tricky changes and some deft riffs that had to be tracked several times over as the close-miked acoustic guitars revealed every nuance (and conversely, any slight mistake). Sitting next to one another, they reveal the different dynamic that John and Paul brought to their craft in a bare bones format.
That divide between the thought process of the two men had always existed, though by now had widened to the point where they became openly critical of each other’s music. Lennon hated the jaunty, reggae inflected “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, while McCartney had serious reservations about Lennon making any overt political comment within the lyric of “Revolution”.
1968 was rife with demonstrations, riots and social unrest, with some American cities literally in flames. Student rallies in Paris culminated in violence, the insanity continued to escalate in Vietnam , eastern Europe and for a time it seemed that societies were coming unhinged.
“Revolution” had it’s genesis in the peaceful Himalayas , far from any hint of the chaos that was taking hold in many areas of the world at that time. Lennon apparently had some anxiety about which side of the fence to plant his ideological feet, counting himself both as “out” and “in” (on the LP only as the faster, heavier single version counts him “out”) for seeking change through violent means. Wonderfully immediate and packing an overdriven wallop, the one that ended up on the B-side to “Hey Jude” carries the most weight. It also succeeds in conveying Lennon’s first instinct about using peaceful methods to achieve the goals of existing movements that were at odds with the inflexible machinery of institution.
The album track of the song is slow, augmented by horns and “shoo-be-doo-wah” backing vocals and was edited to four minutes from its original sprawl.
Robbed of its original context, this great message was torn apart and sold off to Nike for use in a late eighties ad campaign, reduced to a disgusting display of crass commercial interest.
So it turns out that the revolution was televised after all.
Much of what was trimmed off the official LP recording was used to form the basis for “Revolution 9”, a sound collage which has had equal amounts of scorn and praise heaped on it over time. I have read full attempts to break this piece down into sections and analyze it, with one in particular being a very enjoyable dissection. One thing that separates it from other experiments of its kind is that millions of people bought it within a week of its release, smuggled into households within the proverbial Trojan Horse that was the latest Beatles disc.
What does it mean?
You tell me.
What it did provide was a perfect storm to compliment the spooky vibe that is present throughout this magnificent beast of an album. Side four grows especially creepy as the needle steadily progresses toward the run out groove, with a dour song about gorging on chocolate and losing all your teeth in the bargain (“Savoy Truffle”) leading into an unsettling, mock lullaby (“Cry Baby Cry”) that borrows a “Sing a Song of Sixpence” theme, employs a séance and has a dreary, dissonant musical feel. Ending on a question mark, Paul takes up the dark tone with a snippet of a longer improvised acoustic piece.
Can you take me back where I came from, brother can you take me back?
The implication of this well placed bit suggests that the author knew what was coming next and wasn’t keen about moving toward it.
It was too late.
Negative circumstances that surrounded the five months of work that went into this project pushed several members of the creative team to their limit. Tired of the constant arguments, Geoff Emerick walked out mid-way through. Tape operators and engineers recall vicious battles amongst group members, with many work stoppages. More often and not, they were told to go on break while heated discussions took place. One such incident saw George Martin making a polite suggestion to McCartney regarding his phrasing of a line, which drew a “why don’t you come down here and fucking sing it, then?” in response. Usually unflappable, Martin was absent for a stretch because of the hostility factor, leaving the director’s chair to fresh face Chris Thomas. (later to produce a variety of big ticket acts including the Pretenders)
At times, there were several studios running concurrently to meet the demands of the three song writers, who chose to work separately on their tracks after merely employing the others to back them up. Lennon would later say that "we really broke up during this period and it was now just me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group, etc."
The close knit gang that had clawed their way out of playing dives to become world famous now could scarcely stand to be in the same room together.
Rock aficionados have long pondered about what the White Album would have featured had it been trimmed of its fat content. George Martin certainly was in this camp, though the group was not receptive to this plan of action. I do have my personal favorites (“I’m So Tired” stands out), of which rank among some of their very best. Throwing the songs into a digital format gives those listeners with a short attention span the ability to program their own set, unencumbered by the task of lifting the needle from the vinyl to skip cuts.
Viewed from the prospective of those that actually made the record, it really should be taken as it is. It is an eclectic listening experience, serving as a testament to the power of continuous creativity that would be theirs no more after this Herculean effort. They really should have ended the game right here, but instead chose to embark on a project that would drain everyone of their patience and bring their confrontations into the public arena.
The Boys from Liverpool were about to enter into their final act.
Who plays drums on "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence"? What songs were cut from the final running order of the LP? What was "Sexy Sadie" originally titled?