Posted by jeff on Dec 9, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — demo (home recording approx. Nov. 15, 1966)
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — Take 1 (Nov. 24, 1966)
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — entire Take 7 (Nov. 29) followed by additions from Take 26 (Dec. 9)
Once upon a time, and for a good many crucial years, I knew everything an American could know about The Beatles. That’s because there was so little accessible information.
You didn’t have Rolling Stone. You didn’t have Crawdaddy. You didn’t even have the interweb. Let us remind ourselves—“Sgt Pepper” was the first album to include lyrics. You had the music and the album covers, and that’s it. I had listened to every note they recorded several gazillion times. So I knew everything there was to be known—precious little, if you’re a Generation Z infobit addict. Everything that matters, if you believe that what matters most is the music.
I’m not going to try to compete with all those myriads of young ‘uns who know more facts than I do about the Beatles. I’m also not going to analyze the content of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. My working assumption is that it’s a masterpiece. If you need convincing or affirmation of that, look elsewhere. What I am going to do is to try to provide some context for how this revolutionary recording came into being.
I’m taking the prerequisite key factor – John Lennon’s creative genius – as a given. But I do believe there are two additional crucial ingredients that are worth focusing on – the liberating impact of The Beatles’ massive success circa 1966, and the studio time afforded them.
(Up to) August 29, 1966
On that day, The Beatles played their last live concert, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The playlist included creaky Hamburg workhorses such as ‘Rock And Roll Music’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, but not a single song from “Revolver”, which had been recorded from April through June, and was released just a few weeks before the concert.
Up till then, The Beatles had recorded 116 songs in 46 months – 30 per year, several hours per song in the studio time that could be jammed into their schedule between touring and filming and reigning as kings of the universe.
“Rubber Soul” and the singles of the period had included their first cautious steps into experimentation – the fuzz bass on ‘Think For Yourself’, the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, the sped-up piano break on ‘In My Life’, the backwards outro on ‘Rain’. An indication of the schedule they worked under: ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Girl’ were both done in a single day. Almost all the songs were recorded in a single day, with some overdubbing added on later.
George Martin: “It became easier to do experiments because we’d had a few hits. The key was success. As we had more success, it became ‘Come on, lads’. We were more and more able to try out some far-out ideas.”
George Harrison: “You have success with what had seemed like a far-out idea, everybody says ‘Wow’, so you go back into the studio and George [Martin] was very keen, he’d say, ‘Well what other ideas do you have?’”
Pause and reflect on that for a moment. At the height of the era of The Suits, an artist being asked ‘What other ideas do you have?’ Had anyone asked that question of Sinatra? Of Elvis? Of the Four Tops? Of Brian Wilson? All he heard was Mike Love’s “Stick to the fucking formula!”
I worked as a creative artist for a decade. My next meal was never dependent on what I produced. But I assure you, every minute I spent trying to put my thoughts and words on the blank page, there were 10,000 Romans in the room demanding to be entertained, screaming for blood. I would recite to myself, “Jeff, you’re beholden to no one. You are your only audience. Ignore the world, do your best.” Very sound advice.
And then I would promptly turn and ignore it, looking over both shoulders as I typed, thinking “Aren’t I clever”, “Oh, this will tickle them—even if it’s just a little too obvious”, pandering my integrity word after word. That’s the difference between The Beatles and the rest of the world. They transcended The Need To Please. Their god-like status liberated them.
Then “Revolver” (recorded April–June, 1966) took much bolder steps, striking out in all sorts of directions, fueled by drug experimentation: ‘Taxman’, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, ‘Yellow Submarine’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, not to mention ‘She Said, She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Still, only about a day and a half were allocated for the recording of each song. They had to get back on the road, which meant planes, hotel rooms, and screaming girls.
The Beatles were so sick of touring that after the Candlestick show George said “That’s it, then. I’m not a Beatle anymore.” Brian Epstein was forced to promise them they’d stop touring. The lads got a three-month vacation. George went to India to study with Ravi Shankar. Ringo vacationed in Spain. Paul composed the soundtrack for “The Family Way”. Lennon filmed “How I Won the War” in Germany and Spain, during which time he turned 26.
November 24, 1966
On that evening (the first time they escaped the punishment of recording during the daytime), The Beatles reconvened in the studio after having been apart for three months. Rested, buoyed by the success of “Revolver” (entered the charts at #1 in the UK, where it stayed for seven weeks), inspired by the drugs (marijuana and LSD), and driven by the competition (most notably Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds”), the lads and George Martin were at the peak of their creative energies.
George Martin: “Everything changed when they stopped touring. We could spend as much time as we wanted in the studio. That’s when things really started to go crazy.”
Over the next five months they would spend approximately 55 days in the studio, yielding (in order) :
- ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘
- ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘
- ‘Penny Lane‘
- ‘A Day in the Life‘
- ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘
- ‘Good Morning, Good Morning‘
- ‘Only a Northern Song‘
- ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite‘
- ‘Lovely Rita‘
- ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘
- ‘Getting Better‘
- ‘Within You, Without You‘
- ‘She’s Leaving Home‘
- ‘With a Little Help from My Friends‘
- ‘Sgt Pepper (Reprise) ‘.
According to Geoff Emerick, their regular recording engineer, they showed up with a new colourful, mustachioed Carnaby Street look, and a new attitude:
Paul: “Now we can record anything we want, and it won’t matter [that we can’t perform them live]. We want to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever.”
Lennon (to Martin): “What we’re saying is, if we don’t have to tour, then we can record music that we won’t ever have to play live, and that means we can create something that’s never been heard before: a new kind of record with new kinds of sounds.”
Martin: “Right then, let’s get to work. What have you got for me?”
Paul started to say something, but before he could answer, John shouted out, “I’ve got a good one, for a starter!”
John played the song. When he finished, there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, “That is absolutely brilliant.”
John on accordion, Paul on trombone, George on trumpet
“The Beatles weren’t ever especially fast at working out parts…Several hours were spent deciding who was going to play what instrument.” Paul was practicing on the Mellotron, George was experimenting with his new slide guitar, playing ‘long, Hawaiian-style swoops’. Ringo was busy arranging ‘tea towels’ on top of his kit, to give it that distinctive muffled tone. The single take recorded that day was later abandoned.
Emerick on the Mellotron—“Each key triggered a tape loop of a real instrument playing the equivalent note. There were three sets of tape loops installed, so you could have flutes, strings, or choir at the touch of a button.” It was the first time any of them had seen the instrument, and they all took turns playing around on it. “It was Paul, as usual, who discovered the musical potential instead of just the novelty value. Dialing up the flute sound, he began experimenting with the chords to John’s new song. Within a remarkably short time he’d worked out an arrangement that beautifully complemented Lennon’s haunting vocal line.
November 28, 1966 – April, 1967
But after the weekend, Lennon announced he wanted a different sound. He and Martin started over from scratch. Here’s a nice description of that stage from George Martin, including isolated tracks of the percussion, cello and trumpet orchestral recordings, and vocal tracks.
Three more long sessions were dedicated to recording the song, about 55 hours of studio time in total. Martin: “About 30 hours were spent recording the remake.” Emerick: “We were after perfection: it wasn’t a question of being 99 percent happy with something; we all had to be 100 percent happy with it.” John was unusually patient, perhaps due to the drugs he was taking. ‘Strawberry’ received more time and attention than even ‘Day in the Life’ and ‘I am the Walrus’.
“Lennon wanted to try recording it again with more orchestration. He and Martin decided on cello and trumpets. After Martin wrote a score for the instruments, the Beatles recorded the song again. Martin was pleased with this version, but Lennon liked the beginning of the first version and the end of the second and asked Martin to join them together. Martin pointed out that the two versions were in different tempos and different keys”, but the Beatles were accustomed to getting whatever they asked for. Remember, all they had to work with was “a pair of editing scissors, a couple of tape machines, and a varispeed control.” Emerick and Martin slowed down one of them and speeded up the other. The slower version was only a semi-tone flat compared with the faster. They combined the two versions together with a variable-control tape machine.” You can hear the splice at exactly 1:00 in the released version.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ will be John’s song forever. Still, it couldn’t have happened without George Martin’s contribution. Or that of the rest of the band.
Paul’s introduction on the Mellotrom is credited by all as having a profound impact on the sound and feel of the entire recording process.
According to Emerick (who on his first day at work for EMI was taken to view a live recording session – ‘Love Me Do’!!!), whereas previous recordings had been more of a group effort, “Sgt Pepper” was much more of a Lennon and McCartney album.
Nonetheless, Harrison contributed to ‘Strawberry Fields’ the descending raga scale on the svarmandal, a harp-like Indian instrument. Every time I’m tempted to diss Mr Starkey (especially for all that damned hissing cymbal racket dirtying up so many tracks), I think of the revolutionary, muffled tom-tom sound he applied here. Levon Helm of The Band, describing their ‘Tears of Rage’— “It had the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time. You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear the sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way.”
“Sgt Pepper” marked the height of the “Paul Is Dead” craze. In case you’re still wondering, John isn’t saying “I buried Paul” at the beginning of the fade out, but rather “Cranberry sauce”.
In 1970, Lennon claimed that of all his compositions, only two qualified as honest songs: ‘Help!’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is a stunning song, one of his best, one of The Beatles’ best, a cultural landmark of our times. It was born of Lennon’s genius. But it was engendered by Beatlemania – the miraculous, unique, liberating status The Beatles enjoyed.
Posted by jeff on Dec 2, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
“The Beatles: The Making of the First U.S. Visit” Maysles Brothers Documentary (Part 1/4)
“We got a call one day from Granada television in England. They said The Beatles were arriving in two hours in New York at Idlewild Airport. Would we like to make a film of them? I put my hand over the phone and asked my brother ‘Who are The Beatles? Are they any good?'”
Albert (1926-2015) and David (1931-1987) Maysles had been making documentary films for four years when they got that call. They had eschewed their conventional careers in psychology and Hollywood studio work to work in the new American style of “direct cinema” – a shoulder-held camera built by Albert, natural lighting, recording the natural unfolding of real events, akin to the French cinéma vérité.
Enid, Eva Gonzalez and Little Sister
The Maysles made the 81-minute film, “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A,” accompanying the lads from their disembarkment from the plane, through their entire first visit to the US, including the Ed Sullivan Show, travelling by train to Washington, D.C. for a live show, and then by train again to Miami Beach for another Sullivan gig. Much of the film takes place in The Beatles’ hotel rooms, cars and trains.
I probably know more about The Beatles than either of my next-door neighbors. I first saw “Hard Day’s Night” only a month after its release (and then at a 10 AM weekday showing), because I wasn’t willing to subject myself to all those screaming girls in the theater. I wanted to hear the lads under pristine conditions. I’ve seen Richard Lester’s film dozens of times over the last half century, and still think it’s really groovy. The Fab Four with all the concomitant excitement and hysteria.
I don’t know why I wasn’t aware back then of the Maysles film. I was even aware of the Maysles when I was studying film in the late 60s, having seen their documentary of the Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert, “Gimme Shelter,” including live footage (in color) of Hell’s Angels murdering a fan directly in front of the stage. (The Angel was acquitted on grounds of self-defence, the Maysles’ film showing that the attackee was brandishing a pistol.)
But somehow the Maysles’ Beatles film never received the attention it deserved. Until very recently, I was unaware of it in any of its incarnations. Nor, as it turned out, were any of my aging hippie Beatles friends, fans, freaks and fanatics.
The film was an unnoticed revolution and a revelation – an intimate, candid, relaxed, jolly, amazing portrait of Beatlemania and its authors.
As far as I’m able to piece things together, the Maysles released the 88-minute 16mm version of “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A” in 1964. It’s virtually unavailable today, reportedly shown on occasion at festivals.
In 1991, Albert (David died in 1987) re-edited a 91-minute version, called “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit”. It added 22 minutes of their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, but excluded 20 much more interesting minutes of the original version. Some of that is available on-line, such as this 6-minute clip of the lads fooling around in their hotel room and joking with astounded passengers on the train.
To make matters more complicated, there’s an hour-long “The Beatles: The Making of the First U.S. Visit – Maysles Brothers Documentary” which I of course found even more riveting than the film itself (the 1991 version).
And to make matters even more complicateder, there’s an 80-minute version of the material with Albert Maysles’ voice-over commentary.
My recommendation? If you’re a casual fan, find the 1991 movie fast. If you’re one of us, watch the Making Of.
If you think American media circa 1964 was creaky, the BBC was the barely living incarnation of stodginess. The Beatles had been coached by Brian Epstein to behave like well-trained monkeys for the press. The Maysles film shows one such an embarrassing photo shoot in the park.
But for JohnPaulGeorgeRingo, the Maysles weren’t Them – they were these two cool young underground filmmakers. In 1964, John Lennon was 24 years old, David Maysles was 33. The film shows the boys thoroughly enjoying hanging out with the film crew, absolutely comfortable and candid with them, as Beatlemania rages everywhere outside their room.
You see everything. The lads joking with each other, joking with the Maysles. Them against the world. Brian and the crew trying to manage the unimaginable unmanageable. The horrific, embarrassing Murray the K foisting himself upon the Beatles. Murray, in a phone interview with them live on the air: “We got one more week of this, then I’m gonna become the fifth Beatle, okay baby?”
Paul (to the lads, covering the mouthpiece of the phone): “Does anybody understand him?”
And you see the boys taking a keen interest in the film-making process. Think about it – they’re crazy talented, successful 24-year olds. Of course they’re interested in learning how a film is made. They’d soon be doing it themselves (albeit with limited success).
Maysles tells how no one knew if there would be five or 5000 people at the airport, that the Granada reps on the plane wanted standard archaic Auntie Beeb-style interviews. “We’d rather get information that is spontaneous, people experiencing something.”
You see the amazement on The Beatles’ faces as they step off the plane. I mean, this is America.
You see them at their charming, most insouciant best fielding imbecilic questions from the American press:
Q: ‘Are you going to get a haircut while you’re here’
Q: ‘Can you really sing?’
A(John): ‘No, we need money first.’
And then Paul carefully reading the transcript of the press conference in the paper, commenting in retrospect on each of the questions and answers. But he doesn’t come across as calculating or manipulative. He’s overwhelmed. He’s as surprised by it all as we are.
You see all the lads with the Pepsi Cola transistor radios glued to their ears, listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. Paul, “Oh, I like this America.”
You see Ringo climbing onto the dance floor at the Peppermint Lounge – from the dance floor itself, the camera bumping and grinding and hitchhiking and frugging and whatever, girls throwing themselves at him.
You see John in the hotel room playing a series descending chords on a melodica – which would three years later become the chord sequence and sound of “Living is easy with eyes closed”. If you’re me, that penetrates to a very deep spot.
You see girls stalking their room in the hallways and boys dressed up as a adults trying to crash into the hotel. You see the boys get a phone call from Col. Tom Parker. You see George doing an imitation of Dylan singing a talking blues. You see Ringo, in total earnest, saying “I hope we’ll be coming back to America”.
Pride and Joy
The Maysles are brilliant filmmakers. In one early scene, Murray the creepy, sleazy K is talking to the lads on the phone while Marvin Gaye’s ‘Pride and Joy’ is playing in the background. But the Maysles keep the camera on this very, very sexy black chick hanging out in the waiting room on the far side of the glass partition. You see a 30 second shot(!) of Murray out of focus in the foreground, with her moving (in focus) to Marvin Gaye in the background, with the implicit message of ‘There’s a giant pile of hype here driven by Murray’s ego; but there’s also tremendous, real, palpable excitement’. Then they cut to an extreme close-up of a gaggle 14-year old girls shouting “We want The Beatles, we want The Beatles, , we want The Beatles”. Exactly what they mean by that I’ll leave implicit, a gesture to the more gentile among our readers.
I’m tempted to say that The Beatles brought sex to the 1960s.
The pièce de résistance of the Maysles’ footage stars Enid and Eva Gonzalez.
You see the Maysles accompanying The Beatles to the CBS studios that Sunday night for their first American appearance. But they’ve been told that only union technicians are allowed on-stage. You see Paul try to get them in the stage door, to no avail.
Maysles: “Murray the K told us, ‘If you just walk down the street, go into the first tenement building, somewhere along the corridor there’d be a family watching The Beatles on television.’ So when we heard through one of the doors The Beatles’ music, we knocked, the mother came to answer it. We explained to her that we were making a film of The Beatles, could we film her family watching them, she said ‘Come on in.’”
American, 1964, two and a half months after the Kennedy assassination. The Family watching The TV. The Father in his tie. The Boyfriend sulking in the background. The Little Sister’s eyes following her older sisters as intently as a baby python or a tiger cub or a Bird of Paradise chick watches its mother to see just how to stalk the prey, how to dance the dance. You see the light flicker on in that 5-year old head, and you see the girl smile that “what only-women-know” smile.
But most of all you see Enid and Eva transfixed – undulating and squirming and squealing, far more intimate and sexually revealing than any home video by Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.
The Maysles are brilliant filmmakers, flies on the wall at a fascinating, memorable moment. I’m sorry I missed their film back then and all along. So I’d just like to now grant them a much-belated Meshel Prize for their eloquent, revealing storytelling of a story most near and dear to my heart.
Posted by jeff on Jan 8, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
As far as I can remember (a dubious premise at best), I had no inkling on December 6, 1965 that “Rubber Soul” was being released in the US. Perhaps I’d heard that it had been released in the UK three days earlier, I don’t really remember. I do remember scouring the racks of the record store frequently, lest I miss such an auspicious event. But by early January it had reached #1, where it stayed for six weeks, prompting me to write a review for my high school newspaper. (You can see the original at the bottom here, if you must.)
I had forgotten that I was writing record reviews even before college, but an old friend sent me a hard copy of Bulldog Barks with my byline, so I guess it’s undeniable.
It’s a bit spooky to peek into the mind of one’s self at the age of 17 (if one can be said to have a mind at that age). But despite the occasional lapse into teenie-prose, I’m quite proud of the review. The observations are spot-on, really quite perspicacious (I’ve been waiting since a 10th grade vocabulary quiz to use that word!), especially considering the vacuum that was ‘rock journalism’ in 1965. The first edition of Rolling Stone magazine wouldn’t appear for a full two years.
So it’s me, a 17-year old music geek in Cincinnati, trying to figure out all alone just what was going on. But I did understand even back then – without the benefits of hindsight of seeing the seminal impact “Rubber Soul” would have on popular music, without any external resources other than what I could read on the record label and what I could deduce from thousands of listenings to the disc – that this album was something wholly other:
- Artistically ambitious (an innovation for a pop album)
If you need a hint of just how unique that was on the market of the time, the best-selling LPs of 1965 were (in order) ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, and ‘Goldfinger’.
- No hit records to drive sales
- All original compositions
- Instrumental experimentation (sitar, Hammond, fuzz bass, harmonium, lead piano)
- Slower tempi (five down-beat songs, versus two on the previous album, “Help”).
People could (and probably have) written doctoral dissertations on each of those seismic events whose portent I am quite proud to have spotted.
I even spoke of the ‘folksy kind of sound’ of ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’. That was the one element I failed to plumb fully. Today I’d note that John plays an acoustic rhythm guitar on most of the cuts, with an immeasurable impact on the sound of “Rubber Soul” and on the music which would be profoundly influenced by it (i.e., everything).
‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ was recorded in June 1965, released on the UK “Help” (August 1965), but yanked from the US version of the album. It was contemporaneous with The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (June 1965), ‘The Eve of Destruction’ (September 1965) and ‘The Sounds of Silence’ (January 1966). If we had to pick a “first” folk-rock song, perhaps it would be ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ (February 1965). If ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ wasn’t the Grand Opening of folk-rock, it was at very least the harbinger of acoustic rock.
Packaging Rubber Soul
That ‘folksy’ sound is also umbilically tied to country music, which was in 1965 as far from mainstream rock as Mason was from Dixon. But George Harrison and his buddies listened to Carl Perkins almost as much as they listened to Chuck Berry. It just took a couple of years for those influences to insinuate themselves into the Beatles’ music. It started with ‘Act Naturally’ (June, 1965), which was perceived at the time (okay, by me) as a novelty one-off’er. But then came their original treatment of the same fingerpicking sound in ‘What Goes On’. And then came the giant step, that quantum shift we call ‘creative genius’, with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’.
It’s got hillbilly all over it, from Ringo’s ra-ta-ta-tum brushes and John’s acoustic core, more pronounced in the Nashville harmony (Paul on top of Paul) of the refrain (“Falling, yes I am falling…”), complete with George’s Nashville Cat-informed acoustic lead guitar.
One intriguing conundrum of which I was unaware at the time was the variant UK and US versions of “Rubber Soul”, on which mountains of verbiage have been written. I’d like to toss my 2₵ on the pile of the ‘Which is Better?’ compost.
No question – the US version is much more organic stylistically than its British cousin. British LPs usually had 14 cuts, American ones only 12 (perhaps out of fear of fidelity loss due to “groove-cramming”. It wouldn’t be until “Sgt Pepper” that The Beatles would have enough artistic control over the packaging of their music to ensure that the same version of the album would be released on both sides of the pond. Here are the two versions – only UK in red, only US in green.
|1. Drive My Car
3. You Won’t See Me
4. Nowhere Man
5. Think for Yourself
6. The Word
|1. I’ve Just Seen a Face
2. Norwegian Wood
3. You Won’t See Me
4. Think for Yourself
5. The Word
|1. What Goes On
3. I’m Looking Through You
4. In My Life
6. If I Needed Someone
7. Run for Your Life
|1. It’s Only Love
3. I’m Looking Through You
4. In My Life
6. Run for Your Life
It seems to me that the Capitol Suits bested EMI Suits no less than they did in 1776 and 1812. ‘Drive My Car’ is a fine, quirky, biting rocker. But releasing it as a single (in the US) was a much wiser, aesthetically satisfying decision than using it to open The Beatles’ first album conceived as a coherent whole (George Martin: “Up till then we had been making albums rather like a collection of singles. Now we were really beginning to think about albums as a bit of art on their own, as entities of their own. And “Rubber Soul” was the first to emerge that way.”)
“Rubber Soul” was strongly influenced by Dylan, both by the weed he had introduced the boys to as well as the seriousness with which he related to his music. (Here’s a piece I wrote about the Dylan/Beatles symbiosis.) Seriousness means introspection. Introspection means acoustic. “Rubber Soul” is an acoustic album. ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ is a fitting (and wonderful) clarion call. ‘Dri
Originial undistorted album cover photo
ve My Car’ is misplaced. Quod erat demonstrandum.
But if we’re already here, let’s beat the horse a bit. ‘Nowhere Man’ has always been a non-favorite of mine, even a bit of an embarrassment. ‘What Goes On’ is interesting only as part of the process, but is a clearly inferior cut. ‘If I Needed Someone’ is the only reject I regret. But we got in its stead ‘It’s Only Love’. John inexplicably said of it “That’s the one song I really hate of mine. Terrible lyric.” I’ve always been very fond of it.
I wonder how many times I’ve listened to “Rubber Soul”. Five hundred? A thousand? Five thousand? Impossible for me to quantify that. I can certainly quality-fy it, though. There’s not a piece of music in this universe that’s dearer to me. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was a formative moment for my entire generation. As was its companion piece, ‘Girl’. Is there any song more fun than ‘You Won’t See Me’? How indelibly ingrained in my brain is the false start of ‘I’m Looking Through You’, as it appeared in the initial US pressings? Where would we be without the compass of ‘In My Life’? How different would our world have been without “Rubber Soul”?
We are who we are, to a significant degree, due to that record.
Just picture it – half a million children of the Woodstock generation on half a million little desert islands, each one clutching to his/her breast his own personal, worn, beloved copy of “Rubber Soul”. In a sense, I think that does accurately describe the world we live in.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’
207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’
214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’
128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’
Posted by jeff on May 5, 2015 in Rock
, Song Of the week
The Beatles, ‘In My Life’ (Official video)
I have a lot of trouble listening to The Beatles. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard each recording. Five hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? But I do know that my ears are inured to the music, rendered deaf by familiarity. There was a period when I’d try to listen obliquely—with headphones, volume cranked way up to hear every crinkle in the voice, one channel of the stereo version. But for decades now, I listen to The Beatles infrequently.
Even the new remastered boxed set. I have listened to some, and yes, it really is remarkable, the cleanliness and clarity. But the intimate familiarity with the music is so much stronger than the new light being shed that again, it’s not new enough for me to really hear it. Every note is hardwired into my brain. On occasion I’ll play a song in my brain, sort of like a portable jukebox. “Hey, how about ‘Not a Second Time’?” Press B13 in the temporal lobe, there it is. A 2:12 aural clip inside my head, just like on the record.
So all we can do most days is to take a step back. ‘In My Life’ is one of my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums (“Rubber Soul”, the American version). I’m not unique in this. Rolling Stone ranked it 23rd in its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. In a 2000 Mojo magazine poll it was voted the best song of all time by a panel of songwriters which included Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Lamont Dozier, and Carole King.
The song was recorded on October 18, 1965. Lennon sings it, double-tracked. They left the middle part empty, and John asked George Martin to play a piano solo, suggesting “something Baroque-sounding”. Martin wrote a quasi-Bach line that he found he could not play at the song’s tempo. On 22 October, the solo was recorded at half-tempo (one octave lower) and tape speed was doubled for the final recording, solving the performance challenge and giving the piano solo a unique, harpsichord-like timbre.
According to John’s old pal and biographer Pete Shotton, the lines “Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all” referred to Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe (who died in 1962) and to Shotton himself. [In the picture here, you can see an unknown girl, Cynthia, Nigel Wally, Aunt Mimi, John and Pete Shotton (right)]. But for us, it has become the anthem of nostalgia, the emblem of wistful reminiscence. Ironically, though, John rejects a maudlin clinging to the past. What in fact matters is his new love, the lover addressed in the song, she who is real, alive and present. That may not be profound, but it sure is heartfelt and moving.
According to McCartney, it’s one of only two songs whose authorship he and John disagreed about. John says he wrote it all (except for the piano solo), McCartney says he wrote most of the music. The other disputed song is ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which John said he had a hand in writing.
But of course it’s John’s song, through and through. I’m not a big fan of any of Lennon’s solo music, and I don’t understand why people would play ‘Imagine’ or ‘Workingclass Hero’ on his yahrzeit. John’s music died when The Beatles broke up. (If you think that’s cruel or harsh, it was John who said, “Elvis died in the army”). ‘In My Life’ is quintessential John. It’s what he’s all about– melodic and passionate and naked.
Lest I wax soppy, let me add that I’ve always thought that The Beatles misinterpreted this song. One of two cases (the other being ‘Help’) where an introspective song was revved up (and cheapened) to be better suited for AM radio. ‘In My Life’ is way too fast, too noisy, too choppy (Ringo at his worst with his boomachukka drums and intrusive cymbals).
Strange as it seems, I’ve always felt that this song was really nailed by a singer I don’t have too much admiration or respect for, Judy Collins. In 1966 she made an album called “In My Life”, which was quite groundbreaking at the time for the megahit version of gravelly newcomer Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and for its terrific covers of Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donovan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, and especially the then-unknown Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’. Hard to realize today, but giving ‘pretty’ renditions to Dylan, to Cohen and to The Beatles wasn’t at all common. Her versions are very respectable, and hers was one of my first encounters with Randy Newman (way before his first album). But she was really on the mark with ‘In My Life’ (attached here). She captures perfectly the gentleness of Lennon’s composition, which the Beatles quite miss. Here’s her very lovely version.
But despite that, our SoTW is of course The Beatles. They’re the masters, the ones who created the soundtrack of our youth. And even when they’re a little off the mark, they are the monoliths.
None of ‘us’ can listen to the song, look at a picture of John Lennon, and not shed a tear inside. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”, a ‘young child’ named Margaret is weeping at the sight of falling leaves, too young to understand the source of “sorrow’s springs”. Hopkins tells us, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” So when we weep at this song, we’re weeping for our losses, our irretrievable past. But if we really take the song seriously, we should focus on the ones we’re with, the ones we love.
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain.
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
But of all these friends and lovers
there is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.