Jan. 7: Tumble blindly

As far as pitches go, it’s pretty lukewarm.

“I think it’s a waste just banishing it,” John says. “I’d sooner stick it in here.”

It is “Across the Universe” and here is the live show the Beatles were rehearsing for at Twickenham in January 1969. Decades later an established favorite in the Beatles canon, “Across the Universe” was merely an unsatisfactory recording in author John Lennon’s opinion, one that remained in the can for 11 months as of this date. But the song had definite resonance with John.

From his interview with Rolling Stone in 1970:

It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.

The song’s origin dated to 1967, when he was still married to Cynthia. From his interview with Playboy in 1980:

I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I’d kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song; rather than a ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’ or whatever, right? …

Recorded in the same February 1968 sessions that yielded “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” and “Hey Bulldog,” “Across the Universe” was initially John’s pick for a single release while the Beatles were in India the subsequent month. But unhappy with the recording, John withdrew the song for single consideration. “[N]obody was interested in doing it originally, everyone was sickened,” John said in 1980. “The tune was good, but subliminally, people don’t want to work with it sometimes.” John called the bad recording an example of “subconscious sabotage” by Paul.

Meanwhile, Paul’s “Lady Madonna” won the honor  for the single, and John “banished” the song by offering “Across the Universe” to Goons alum Spike Milligan for a charity album he was compiling to benefit the World Wildlife Fund. That part of the story comes later.

An early take of the song eventually surfaced on Anthology 2 in 1996 … 

… while another take from that same session was ultimately used as the basis for the Let It Be version before being reworked again for Let it Be … Naked.

That part of the story comes later, too.

Between February 1968 and January 1969, the Beatles had issued a 30-song LP (the White Album), two singles (“Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude“) and their Christmas album, and 10 days after this January 7, 1969, session the Yellow Submarine soundtrack would come out. But none of those releases featured “Across the Universe,” a fully recorded and mixed track.  The Beatles weren’t attempting to lay down tracks for an album at Twickenham, and this early they conceded any eventual yield from these sessions that ended up on vinyl would be a bonus.

It’s under these circumstances John thinks the time is right for a reintroduction of “Across the Universe,” on the heels of a hefty dose of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” It’s also a window into the relatively exhausted state of John’s songwriting at this point after his explosive contributions to the White Album. Paul is writing on the spot at the sound stage and George is bringing in songs he developed the night before. John is left offering a year-old song that was already recorded as a contribution to the show, a “Cynthia” song —  presumably his last — brought forward in time to Generation Yoko. And on top of that …

It’s “another slow one,” too.  “I know that we’ll knock off a couple of fast ones,” John bemoans. “If I just wasn’t so tired when I got in …”

George expresses that it’s OK to have another slow song, and we hear a snippet of the tune to be later known as “Gimme Some Truth” for the second time these sessions. “That’s another one,” John says. “It’s a pity they’re all so similar because it would have been nice, that ‘Hypocrites’ one.

“What’s the first line?” John asks as the group begins work on “Across the Universe.”

He gave the song a pair of run-throughs just the day before, and did in fact get the opening right but not much else.  On January 7, the words were not at all flowing, like a paper cup or much of anything else, as he limps through a lackluster initial take. Once a set of lyrics finally arrived from the office, John baffled even himself with his poetry.

“Tumble blindly?” he asks with incredulity.

With lyrics in hand, work begins anew on the arrangement.

John: When we were doing it last time, we did it all right in the end.  The thing I don’t lke about the version we did, is we didn’t dig it the time we did it. All that tamboura was great.

George: I liked those girls singing as well, which you didn’t like. The whole record is great, really. It’s just another idea, another way of doing it.

John: I haven’t heard it in along time.

After John responds to Paul’s question on the status of the World Wildlife Fund LP for the second time in as many days (“they haven’t gotten it together yet”), the tape cuts before dumping us mid-rehearsal as the group continues work on the song. Pacing is an early issue, and John asks Ringo if he can remember his part from the recording. To George, the slower pace, compared to the recording, fits the song’s mood. “It couldn’t be any other way,” John replies. “I couldn’t get the words out. There’s no breath.”

The drone — played on the tamboura for the 1968 recording — was something John liked very much, and how to include that here was debated with an organ making an appearance. John briefly accompanied himself on the instrument before abandoning it, saying that playing along was “too hard.”

In the near 40 minutes on and off focused on “Across the Universe” rehearsals on the tapes, there were brief moments where the band sounded tight and the group’s harmonies clicked, but takes usually crumbled. John gave George, who was employing heavy wah-wah, carte blanche with the song’s introduction. “Whatever you’d like, you’re on your own there.”

The rare song brought to the Get Back sessions complete and — like “One After 909″ (which would be be played between “Across the Universe” takes) — recorded previously as well, “Across The Universe” was a venue for the group to play out a bit of their frustrations and feeling of being trapped in their own group dynamic and in these sessions. It’s not just in the clip below, but throughout the day’s takes, the song is performed lethargically, but it’s plausible to think Paul and John believe it when they sing “nothing’s gonna change my world” so strongly together. Just a few hours earlier they backed off the brink of breakup, perhaps they were resigning themselves that the world they were in really wasn’t going to change. One take, in response to his own chorus conceding nothing was gonna change his world, John says as an aside, “I wish it fucking would.”

Nothing was gonna change that song, either — John made no attempt to solicit or attempt any significant tweaks to the song, keeping the original lyrics, structure and melodies intact. Paul applied a few spontaneous harmonies, although it was unclear if it was something that would have remained if the song advanced further in the sessions.

There are several excursions from “Across the Universe” including a second abbreviated attempt at what John seemed to consider an unfinished companion song in “Gimme Some Truth.” While John suggested writing more, the group merely played the minute or so of the song it knew and moved on.

“That’s just as exciting as the other one,” John says sarcastically as the band finishes playing a bit of the song. This would mark the end of “Gimme Some Truth” as a Beatles song as John left it in an aborted state. It would not be rehearsed again these sessions on the tapes, or presumably in any other Beatles session in 1969. George would ultimately play guitar for John when the song surfaced on Imagine in 1971 in a version as dynamic as the Beatles version was listless.

About 45 minutes after the final attempt at “Across the Universe” and several attempts of “Don’t Let Me Down” came one of the more surreal moments of the Beatles’ time at Twickenham captured on the Nagra reels. With the work day nearly complete, the group finally got to hear a copy of the original recording of “Across the Universe,” as requested by John as the song’s rehearsals began. For about 3 1/2 minutes, we listen to the band listen to themselves on record, the entirety of the World Wildlife Fund version of the song that would be released more than 11 months later, in December 1969.

universe1b

Of note, is that the sound effects were already in place on what was a freshly cut acetate. According to the liner notes accompanying the 2009 The Beatles in Mono box set, the sounds were added in January 1969, which means it was completed within the previous 144 hours. So its feasible this was the first time the group was hearing that addition, and George was vocal about his displeasure. “I don’t like that flapping,” the Beatle says of the bird. “It takes too long before it does it” (presumably meaning the song starts).  It’s difficult to hear much other discussion — although there clearly is some, along with mild attempts by the group to play along.

A sequence in the Let it Be film lasting less than a minute and 45 seconds, spliced in immediately following the “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play” line captures a taste of the January 7 “Across the Universe” session. The song would be rehearsed, briefly, once more two days later before being shelved completely, falling out of consideration for the live show.

The song’s association with Let It Be — the album and the film — is really a complete anachronism, but certainly not without reason.  The group spent about an hour (on the tapes) working on “Across the Universe” during the Get Back sessions, half of that on January 7 with the balance January 6 and 9. None of those takes have been formally released on record, with the only official glimpse the brief segment in the film. The song made its way onto at least one of Glyn Johns’ compilations for the aborted Get Back LP and ultimately found its way onto Phil Spector’s final Let It Be, in a production beloved by John. The anachronism carried even further onto Let It Be … Naked, which intended to reissue the original record and thus sessions in an unvarnished fashion, yet it still included a mix of the 1968 version of “Across the Universe.”

Because it was in the film and as of early 1970 was a finished Beatles product but not yet surfaced on a Beatles release, there was a perfect excuse for “Across the Universe” to make the soundtrack. To repeat John from January 7, 1969: “I think it’s a waste just banishing it. I’d sooner stick it in here.”

The group spent considerably more time on songs like “All Things Must Pass” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” during the Get Back sessions. But with the former not in the film and earmarked as a George solo song, and the latter already released on Abbey Road by the time the film was released, “Across the Universe” by comparison didn’t not make sense as an option for the Let It Be LP. This, even though it was a song that featured a master track from 1968 and strings and production from 1970. In 1969, a bird made music on “Across the Universe,” but not a Beatle.

The record as produced by Spector featured 12 songs, 11 from the January 1969 sessions. The 12th — “Across the Universe” — fell under the Let It Be banner to save it from eternal banishment.

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TMBP Extra: Time to leave the capsule

Today, Jan. 8, marks David Bowie’s birthday. We’ve noted Bowie’s birthday here before, purely as an afterthought in conjunction with the fact it’s also Elvis Presley’s birthday. But we focused on Elvis last time, and today’s it’s Bowie’s turn.

Life on Mars and Venus

Life on Mars and Venus

Bowie wrote and recorded with, covered and befriended John, performed with Paul, covered George and has at least hung out with Ringo (were we all so blessed).

From last year’s Bowie: The Biography (which I only skimmed, but my wife thought was pretty trashy):

According to Tony Visconti, David’s friendship with John developed to such a degree that the three of them often spent a night on the town together. “We stayed up with John Lennon until 10:30 a.m. We did mountains of cocaine, it looked like the Matterhorn, obscenely big, and four open bottles of cognac,” Tony recalled. … John and David bonded over drugs, music, and a shared quirky British sense of humor.

In addition to having crossed paths to varying degrees with each of the members of the band, Bowie was deeply influenced and inspired by The Beatles, and when you try hard enough, you can hear it throughout his extensive catalog. Additionally, Ken Scott was a shared link in the studio, engineering Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album while engineering and/or producing Bowie from 1969-1973. (Visconti worked with John and Paul, too, after he first worked with Bowie)

Los Angeles, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

New York, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

But one thing Bowie did not do was have anything to do with The Beatles as a unit. His star only rose as The Beatles’ was burning out.  The Beatles closed the 1960s after defining its sound just as Bowie prepared to do the same for the ’70s. As Bowie eventually put it, when referring to his friendship with Lennon: “Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.”

After a lifetime of enjoying rock music, it somehow took until my 40th year to fully immerse myself into Bowie’s music. This is not to say I wasn’t a fan, or didn’t enjoy various releases over the years. But in 2014 I really became a superfan, getting completely absorbed into his music. Part of that immersion was to visit the truly incredible David Bowie Is exhibition that recently closed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Comprehensive and engrossing, I was blissfully overwhelmed.

The Times, Jan. 6, 1969 (click for larger image)

The Times, Jan. 6, 1969 (click for larger image)

Among the artifacts near the beginning of the exhibit was a newspaper: the Times of London showing the Earthrise, the iconic image from Apollo 8 that shows, well, the earth rising as viewed from the moon. The photo was taken Dec. 24, 1968, but was published in a special insert in the Times on Jan. 6, 1969. According to the exhibit, after seeing the paper, Bowie had “Space Oddity” written within a week.

Especially when you place yourself into that era, it’s a moving image, the blue earth rising above the moon, but that’s not what jumped out at me. And if you happened to be at the MCA that morning in mid-November and heard someone muttering, “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play,” and wondered who it was, that would be me.

Because on Jan. 6, 1969, David Bowie was inspired to begin writing “Space Oddity” at the precise moment The Beatles were bickering over how to rehearse “Two of Us” just miles away at Twickenham.

The Nagra tapes didn’t roll 24/7 in the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo from Jan. 2-31, so we certainly can’t say the Apollo mission — or any other particular news event — did or didn’t inspire or influence the band. The group touched on politics, immigration in particular, in outtakes like the “No Pakistanis” version of “Get Back” and “Commonwealth” at various points during the Get Back sessions (writeups to come!), and it’s not as if The Beatles didn’t have a history of being social commentators.

But I found it illustrative with regards to where these different acts were at this very specific moment in time — Jan. 6, 1969 — that David Bowie was able to find a muse that would launch him into stardom for the first time just as The Beatles found themselves trapped –Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing The Beatles could do. Between the time Bowie started writing “Space Oddity” on Jan. 6 and finished it on the 13th, George would suggest the band “have a divorce” after an open discussion recounting how bad things have been for a year (Jan. 7), and then he’d end up quitting (Jan. 10). The Twickenham sessions ended Jan. 14.

George on David Bowie, 1974

I certainly won’t argue The Beatles were out of ideas in January 1969; This entire blog is predicated on the idea the group remained vibrant and vital during the Get Back sessions. But it’s obvious any success they had was despite themselves. The songs they wrote or worked on this month were works of art, to varying degrees, but it was often tantamount to climbing up the hill backwards, as Bowie would put it, to get anything done. We’d have lost Abbey Road and Let It Be (although you’d assume many of the songs would later resurface on solo records) but an argument can be made John and George, at least, would have been happier people had The Beatles ceased to exist sometime in 1968. Is the difference tangible between a band being pulled apart and an artist ready to burst? Oh boy, is it ever.

Used in conjunction with the BBC’s Apollo 11 moon landing coverage in July 1969, “Space Oddity” made a name of Bowie just as The Beatles were in the thick of recording Abbey Road. (About 12 hours after man first walked on the moon, The Beatles began recording “Come Together”). By the time Bowie’s eponymous LP featuring “Space Oddity” was released that November, The Beatles were effectively finished. Five years (what a surprise) later, after meeting John at a party, the Starman ultimately entered the orbit of The Beatles.

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Jan. 7: Bangers and mashups

OK, stick with me here.

Nearly 46 years ago, somewhere between lunch and the resumption of the day’s writing session-cum-rehearsals for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” it sure sounds like Paul McCartney may just have invented the mashup, or at least a rough approximation.

Really!

This is not a medley, sampling, sound collage or musique concrete a la “Revolution No. 9” and others before it. This is turn-of-the-21st century-style mashup: Think The Grey Album, Girl Talk or the Beatles’ own Love with elements of two or more songs layered on top of each other.  The kind of stuff Paul got roped into a few years back before an audience, he and George performed live to tape decades earlier in a little bit of completely obscure history.

(The uploader’s caption is wrong as it’s obviously Paul reciting the lyrics, but it’s the right clip).

That would be 1967’s “When I’m 64” (written a decade earlier as one of Paul’s first songs and described here by Paul as the “beautiful geriatric Beatles song”) sung atop “Speak to Me,” which would ultimately lead off Jackie Lomax’s debut album, as produced by George and released two months later.  We already heard George play a more proper version of “Speak to Me” to John a few days earlier.

As Paul’s “When I’m 64″ vocals eventually drop out – and his mouth clicks chime in – we go from a forgotten moment of debatable history to one that would have a lasting impact on wax: the debut of Maxwell’s actual Silver Hammer, the anvil, as ordered before lunch.

The band comfortably eases out of “Speak to Me” with a fun and increasingly polished run through of “Oh! Darling” – polished for this point in the sessions, for sure –  the second time they played the song in a few hours, and with John having rejoined the group back on guitar. The song is essentially complete and by all accounts should have been by now part of the core considered for the live show at this early stage. It doesn’t get any further attention this afternoon as Paul immediately returns to “Maxwell’s” for the better part of another hour. This initial launch into the song is captured in the Let it Be film, spliced in from the point where Mal strikes the anvil.  It’s a truncated slice of the song, and in the film we end up getting thrust into the Shockrick Shocks incident, which actually occurred four days earlier.

Paul doesn’t introduce any new wrinkles yet in this first go-round after lunch. He’s pleased, though. “It’s catchy enough, then,” he says after the first full take. He soon boasts of the dramatis personæ and vibe of the song, “It’s so cartoon … such caricatures.”

Paul remains a delightful caricature of himself, remaining fixated on the whistles that color the song throughout. “We want a mic for John and George on this ’cause the whistle on this,” is Paul’s first and primary direction to the crew. George’s initial concern in the early going of the post-lunch session is getting the song’s timing and cues down, especially for the sake of Mal, who wielded the hammer. Not that George didn’t try to give his drummer an additional bit of work.

“I’m sorry, George, the hammer’s too heavy for me,” Ringo says to laughter.  As it turned out, Ringo would end up carrying that weight after all, striking the anvil in July, when the group properly recorded “Maxwell’s” for Abbey Road.

By Paul’s thinking, the roadie was the man for the job.

Mal’s more like Maxwell, anyway. … He should be very scholarly. Very straight, in a striped tie and a blazer, sort of. Big chrome hammer. That’s how I see him anyway. [He’s] Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine, in fact.

Resplendent in a smart gray blazer and striped tie, Mal Evans is already dressed for the role of Maxwell Edison as he rides the Magical Mystery Tour bus.

Resplendent in a smart gray blazer and striped tie, Mal Evans is already dressed for the role of Maxwell Edison, medical student, as he rides the Magical Mystery Tour bus.

Sparked by a question from George about the repeated of “bang, bang” in the chorus, Paul runs through the song structure again with the usual caveat: “I haven’t written the last bit.”

That’s fine with George, who thinks he knows how the song goes. “I just know it in my head, rather than the words, because the words are not in the right order anyway.”

Loose as he can be, Paul repeats the song structure: “It’s like two verses (scatting and singing) Bang, bang. … Clang, clang. … Whistle. … That’s nice fellas.”

As work continues, George shows a bit of concern with his own instrumentation.

George: To the man that’s producing me, whenever I play bass, because I don’t know anything about it, I don’t know what the sound is. I just plug it in and play it. So if somebody knows how to get the sound or record it. I mean Glyn’ll have to do that if he’s around. So you can mention that to him.

That’s some pretty self-deprecating talk from George, but he really has few bass credits under his belt to this point.

Straight out of the Small Faces’ playbook, John ad libs a narrative introduction to the song, laying out Maxwell Edison’s origin story, with Paul picking up in the middle.

John: Let me tell you the story about Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. He got it from F.D. Cohen, the pawnbroker from Bayswater.

Paul: Maxwell was a young boy just like any other boy, and he might’ve lived a life like any other young boy’s life had it not been for some certain unforeseen circumstances.

And … whistle!

Given that the band spent more than an hour on the song of about five hours of recorded tapes this day, it’s no surprise it was a very early contender for the live act. So much so, George began offering up suggestions on how to stage it, beyond costuming for the band and Mal. There’s a practical side to his suggestions, too.

George: I think we can do it with lots of people singing the chorus, ‘Bang, bang, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’ but it’s very difficult for me to whistle and sing and keep in sync. … It should be like the end of [Hey] Jude.

John:  ‘You all know it, join in, gang, because we don’t know it.’

George: We could just project it up, have the chorus projected up there.

We’re not sure what Paul thinks of that idea, since there’s whistling to be done, and no joke whistling, please.  “Really, do it like it’s straight,” he says, telling George how the notes of the chorus solo goes. That’s a whistle solo, not a guitar solo, mind you.  Paul does work on improving the song, spending a few minutes crafting a harmony based on a short, partial climb up a scale “with jumps on the hammer,” in his words. It’s pretty and adds to the carnival-like atmosphere the song has to this point.

For the final takes of the day of the song, the rest of the group still doesn’t have the song’s structure completely down, and Paul resorts to vocal cues to alert when the whistling solos come. John asks Paul to shout out “blow it, boys” at the appropriate time. Paul can’t help but repeat his helpful reminder: “It should be very straight, the whistling.”  He really does keep saying this, to a near obsessive state, and at no point is he kidding about it.

The “Maxwell’s” rehearsals for the day end with a final, full run through. The song’s basic elements are there: new harmonies, whistle solos, the anvil and a full strong structure. What it lacks is a complete set of lyrics, but Paul isn’t sweating it, concluding with a simple, “OK, that’s Maxwell’s.”

While the song did progress with the work on Jan. 7, there was a noticeable missed opportunity shortly after lunch as a lead-in to the mashup sequence. For a few brief moments as the group warms up, a sloppy yet sincere take of “Maxwell’s” features Ringo on vocals, and it sounded like the perfect fit. Paul’s song eventually drove the other three Beatles to fury; giving Ringo an extended vocal role could have changed a little corner of Beatles history.

As the sessions continue, John takes the reins for the next song, one that not only has its lyrics set, but the instrumentation as well.

“Should we do ‘Across the Universe?’ We almost know that, don’t we?”

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TMBP Extra: White anniversary

Forty-six years ago today – Nov. 22, 1968 – The Beatles graced us with The Beatles, ie., the White Album. It’s as brilliant on a listen today as I’m sure it was then. Yet, less than six weeks after it hit stores, John, Paul, George and Ringo were at Twickenham writing and rehearsing songs that would eventually populate Let It Be, Abbey Road, All Things Must Pass, McCartney and sporadically on other releases.

whitealbumThe Get Back sessions story – what we’re telling here via the Nagra reels — can’t be told completely without the context and seen through, in part, the lens of the rocky White Album sessions. Ringo left the band three months into recording The Beatles. It took only eight days for George to flee the group at Twickenham. Just listen to the group’s own words on Jan. 7, 1969, the day we’re currently working through on the blog’s timeline.

Paul: The past couple of months, it’s been this. The [White] album was like this. The album was worse.

George: The Beatles have been in doldrums for at least a year.

Perhaps to snap out of those doldrums, the group flirted with the idea of a live show to promote the White Album into the new year – ie., 1969 – but that idea soon fizzled. That flirtation and subsequent search for a live show scenario, however, was a prevalent theme all January 1969 long with the rooftop show the ultimate answer.

Of course, another important connection linking the White Album and the Get Back sessions are the songs. And not just wacky takes like this:

Or this:

The Get Back sessions continued the White Album’s larger focus on playing together as a band (further distancing themselves from Sgt. Pepper) and ostensibly served as a writing lab and demo venue for Abbey Road, the clear bridge between the two records. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Something” both dated to 1968, while “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” were rehearsed in the White Album demo session at Kinfauns. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (and “Everybody Had a Hard Year”) and “Don’t Let Me Down” similarly dated to 1968.

So while proximity (1968 vs. 1970 releases) and the ultimate productions do a lot to blur some of the relations between the White Album and Let It Be (via the Get Back sessions), the anniversary of The Beatles’ release offers as good an opportunity as any to briefly mark those ties.

To celebrate, here’s “Revolution,” filmed at Twickenham nearly four months to the day before the band returned to the same soundstage to begin the Get Back sessions.

Back soon with the conclusion of the Jan. 7 “Maxwell’s” story along with “Across the Universe.” Didn’t I say that last time? Yes. But I thought instead of rattling out enough tweets marking the White Album that could fill a blog post, I’d just write a blog post.

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TMBP Extra: Sound Man

Glyn Johns’ resume is so impressive, his work with The Beatles could be considered a footnote.

Just take the next 24 hours, and check out a fraction of songs he worked on as producer, engineer and/or was tasked with mixing on this playlist I put together. I tried to attach as many full albums as I could find on YouTube. Otherwise, I drew just a few tracks to sample. To any classic rock radio program directors reading, feel free to use this playlist to do your job for you.

Alternately, take less than a full day, but more than a few minutes and enjoy the discography posted on his website. It’s staggering, and truly touches on “the biggest names in rock” (spoken in radio promo voice).

But as impressive as his work with the likes of Zeppelin, the Stones, Kinks, Who, Dylan, Eagles and so many others (The Clash! Jools Holland!! Paul on Red Rose Speedway!!!) as well as innovating a technique for recording drums, what matters most here at They May Be Parted International HQ is Glyn’s involvement with The Beatles in January 1969. As engineer for the sessions and later producer for the aborted Get Back album that ultimately became Phil Spector’s Let It Be, Glyn is part of the fabric of the story we’re telling here, even if his actual work isn’t present on the Nagra Tapes itself that we’re listening through.  He was a brief part of Abbey Road’s story, too, having worked on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something.”  But that’s another post.

Glyn Johns autographs a book at Saturdays Rock Hall event.

Glyn Johns autographs a book at Saturday’s Rock Hall event.

Glyn, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago, was among the few to be present for the duration of the Get Back sessions, and thanks to whatever combination of good living, good genetics and good luck, he’s among the even fewer still with us in 2014. He just released a memoir, “Sound Man,” and I was lucky enough to see him at a promotional Q&A hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives in Cleveland on Saturday.

The briskly paced event covered specifics of his start in the recording industry at IBC, his pioneering role as a freelance engineer and his views on production today (he hates it, with the move to digital the culprit) with some short anecdotes peppered throughout.  There was a bit of discussion on the Stones (he helped them from the start and worked with them throughout the ’60s and ’70s, plus he lived with keyboardist Ian Stewart), and a he made a few one-off, matter-of-fact mentions that brought into context just how monumental his career has been (“When I was producing Jimi Hendrix” … “Oh, that was on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again'” … “I worked on ‘Exile” later on,” etc.). But his biggest raves were for Led Zeppelin, whose debut he engineered in October 1968 before its release three months later during the period of George Harrison’s walkout at Twickenham.  Glyn is still clearly moved by the music Zeppelin made in the studio as he was recording them for the first time.

George, however, was unimpressed (and he wasn’t alone).

Glyn — who in perfect deadpan answered that Zep drummer John Bonham’s most remarkable achievement in the studio was to “turn up” — told the same tale about George’s dismissal of Zeppelin in the book. While Glyn didn’t share much insight to working with the Beatles at this event, he did spend close to 10 minutes on the Get Back experience for another Q&A for the Rock Hall two years ago (that somehow I completely missed at the time).

Glyn elaborates on these first-hand observations of the Get Back sessions in pretty straightforward fashion in the book, although he does take credit for having the idea to play on the roof, the origin of which has been in dispute for 45 years. But per his style, Glyn doesn’t air any dirty laundry. For instance, when it comes to George’s walkout, he writes:

It is not my place to discuss any detail of what happened, but it is common knowledge that George left the band and was persuaded to return a couple of days later. Once that was over and done with we carried on and it seemed that all was quickly forgotten.

Glyn does contest the notion he was picked by The Beatles to produce the session over George Martin because he had a union card to work on a movie. But per the official written Beatles story — Anthology — Georges Martin and Harrison are both quoted saying that Glyn was selected just for a change of pace.

As an elite engineer, Glyn’s descriptions of Magic Alex’s famed “work” at the Apple Studio are a fun read.

The console looked like something out of a 1930s Buck Rogers science fiction movie. Above it on the wall were eight loudspeakers that were about the size and thickness of a large ham and cheese sandwich.

Glyn’s overall involvement in the Get Back sessions is illustrative of how unusual January 1969 was for the Beatles compared to how they did everything else throughout their career, before and for the brief time after that they were together. The Beatles weren’t just altering how they wrote and rehearsed songs, working in a foreign studio with cameras in their faces, they went an extra step to hire a man they’ve never worked with them to capture that sound. It all ultimately came to an disappointing end for Glyn, who after the sessions made several attempts at creating the Get Back album for naught as the project was bumped back and later supplanted by Abbey Road. As he told the Rock Hall audience in 2012, “I go off thinking I’m pretty hot stuff, [but] I’m not at all. I’m sweeping up, really.”

George, Ringo and Glyn at Savile Row, late January 1969

George, Ringo and Glyn at Savile Row, late January 1969

His thoughts on the Let It Be LP, on which he has a mere “thanks to” mention on the back cover? Glyn doesn’t mince words on his opinion of the Spector version of the record, writing in Sound Man that “Phil Spector … puked all over them, turning the album into the most syrupy load of bullshit I ever heard.”  His opinion hasn’t softened over time — two years ago he told the Rock Hall audience that “shame he wasn’t locked up earlier, really, wouldn’t have played with my record.”

All told, Glyn — who wrote that “I felt like I’d won the lottery” when he got the job to work the Get Back sessions —  spent about 25 pages of his book’s 286 pages on working with The Beatles (including a couple on his first experience working with the group, as second engineer on the 1964 TV special “Around the Beatles”).  That’s nearly 10 percent of an autobiography written about a product he never saw officially released. So perhaps the Beatles weren’t quite a footnote after all for Johns.

———-

This, however, IS a footnote: After the Q&A, I purchased Sound Man and got it autographed by the author. I let Glyn know about this blog and he gave me the wordless impression that I must be a madman to immerse myself in these tapes for pleasure (and perhaps I am). Still, he said he’d check out the blog, so if you find your way here, Glyn, welcome! And to everyone, I’m working on the next post, a continuation of Jan. 7 “Maxwell’s” session with “Across the Universe” coming up on its heels. I intend on having both out before the end of the month. As always, stay tuned for updates at twitter.com/theymaybeparted.

 

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Jan. 7: Joke whistlings

From the Let It Be film

Mal at work. From the Let It Be film

If there’s a tape of Paul and John asking Mal Evans to manage the alarm clock in “A Day in the Life,” it hasn’t surfaced. Likewise, we never hear John telling George Martin he wanted to “smell the sawdust” in adding the fairground feel to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

But among the days’ worth of Nagra reels covering the Get Back sessions on Jan. 7, 1969, as the band lurched toward what became at least a temporary split later that week  — this is Tuesday, and George walks out on Friday —  we do get to hear  play out in real time the origin story of unique and memorable instrumentation to appear later on Abbey Road.

Unremarkable in the moment, Paul’s suggestion, made for the second time in three days, Mal “should have a hammer. … an anvil” comes about 20 minutes into the day’s work on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Like, on steel. You know, a [bang, bang]. So it sounds silver, steel.

Sprouting from a short rehearsal of “I’ve Got a Feeling” with a quick touch of “Oh! Darling,” the “Maxwell” session on Jan. 7 runs for more than an hour on the tapes, straddling both ends of a lunch break. It’s far and away the longest time spent on any single song this day.

The key to appreciating the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” rehearsals is to view them completely in a vacuum. In a sense, it’s incredibly frustrating to think of the time spent on this when George has “All Things Must Pass,” for instance, withering to group disinterest. Or that John has a skeleton of what would become “Gimme Some Truth” two years later, unfinished — a song tinkered with briefly this very day. Paul himself could have spent the extra time on “Oh! Darling,” which purportedly had interest from other bandmates at this very specific moment in time. So on its face, just listening to this portion of the tapes is infuriating, because WHY IS PAUL MAKING US LISTEN TO “MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER” FOR HOURS??? STOP KILLING JOAN!!!

But in a vacuum — and with the understanding that all of The Beatles’ musical children are beautiful and deserving of love — this is a very instructive and iconic moment in the history of the song, and we see significant progress in the song’s overall development. This, even though Paul himself admits he hasn’t finished writing it.

The band hit the ground running with the song, having already spent time on it Jan. 3 (when Paul also made reference to getting a hammer for the song, but didn’t follow through as he would today), but it’s a bit of a bumpy start as Paul is still reminding the rest of the group of the chords — the alignment is Paul on piano, George on bass and John on a jaunty guitar.  When Paul remarks he “doesn’t like the waltz” drum pattern that coming out of the chorus into the verse, Ringo laughingly bemoaned, “it’s the only bit I remembered in the whole piece!” It’s just an early reminder and reflection that the song was Paul’s priority and his alone, something that would continue into the song’s recording for Abbey Road six months later.

Paul doesn’t always play it straight, hamming it up lounge-singer style, delivering cringe-worthy tongue clicks and scats along where he still needs to write lyrics. Sure, he’s completely contradicting his own instructions moments earlier as they worked on “I’ve Got a Feeling” — “We should start off by doing everything we’re going to do on the thing. Like if you’re going to do the ‘oh yeahs’ innit, you’ve got to do ‘em how you’re going to do it.”  It wasn’t the first (or last) time he wouldn’t take his own advice, either.   But here it probably shows the more advanced, but unpolished state “I’ve Got a Feeling” was in, the song in true rehearsal stage, while “Maxwell’s” was clearly an unfinished product.

Like on so many of these tapes, and especially on Paul’s songs — which more often seem to be delivered to the band incomplete  — we get an incredible windows into Paul’ s songwriting technique. As he plays along on piano, he’ll hum a suggested bassline.  Without notice, he’ll change it. Once he gets a certain part down — whether it’s a drum pattern or a whistle — he’ll interrupt and make clear it’s what he’s looking for. Until he decides to change it again. That’s in contrast to George’s songs, which more often are closer to complete and accompanying parts are set in George’s mind. While John wasn’t nearly as productive as Paul or George during the sessions, we’ve seen how he’s more willing to get open input from the rest of the band.

What Paul’s looking for here is a far more whimsical production than what surfaced on Abbey Road months later. It’s not just the tongue clicks. Paul’s looking to go all out, proposing ukulele solos and looking to Ringo for some “razzmatazz there on the cymbals.”

Then there’s the whistling. There was plenty of whistling in these early takes of “Maxwell’s.” But lapsing into caricature, Paul — interrupting an unrelated question from George — explains just what he’s looking for from his band.

If we do a solo, whistling, we should try and do like a real whistling solo, ’cause it is a bit much if it’s those joke whistlings.

The man was nothing if not a perfectionist. Of all the things that would put the song over the top, Paul was sure here it would be insincere whistling. Just to make sure everyone knew he was serious, during a subsequent stab at a part whistled in unison between verses, Paul barks out “straight” just to make sure any joke whistlings didn’t sneak its way in.

In all, the song was definitely coming together nicely. Incomplete, it still had shape and vibrancy, and the rest of the group beyond Paul gave every indication they were enjoying performing it, despite continued confusion at times over cues.

It was in this context Paul suggested a figurative bell to add to his literal whistles.

We should have a hammer. … Mal, on an anvil. Like, on steel. You know, a [bang, bang]. So it sounds silver, steel.

Wearing bow ties for this one.

Paul doesn’t just see the anvil as part of the instrumentation. It gives Paul the excuse to think more broadly about the song in the context of the live show. “We’ll all be wearing bow ties for this one, blazers.”  The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up earlier this day, and now Paul’s suggesting costume changes during a performance of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Moods swing rapidly at Twickenham.

The group is in a jocular mood — probably as much as we’ve heard to this point on the tapes — as the band laughs, whoops and hams it up during the final takes of this portion of the “Maxwell’s” rehearsals and as they head out for lunch.

They’d return with full stomachs and pieces of steel.

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Jan. 7: Pulled their socks up

Everybody had a hard year? If we’re talking about the Beatles, that’s a fair appraisal just a week into 1969.

As rehearsals were set to get fully under way January, 7, 1969, the group openly discussed breaking up. Instead, moments later, they were trying to hammer out the details of “I’ve Got a Feeling” for more than 20 minutes before launching into an extended session dedicated to Paul’s pet “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”paul

The out was right there for them; the group was in agreement that a divorce was not unreasonable. But while we don’t know for certain, (unless this particular discussion was filmed and we can see for ourselves if the footage is ever released), it doesn’t even sound like anyone moved out of their chairs, much less high-tailed for the exits. Paul left the band during the recording of “She Said, She Said” in 1966 and Ringo split during “Back in the USSR” in ’68. But this cry for divorce, so much more severe than a walkout of a single member, didn’t immediately lead to much of anything. Nobody budged January 7, 1969, after the early takes of “Get Back,” and status quo reigned.

As tension melts and the group trades chatter for chords, it quickly becomes clear little that had led to the group to the brink had actually changed.  Paul may not enjoy his role as band leader — “I’m scared of that, ‘You be the boss’” — but he’s not letting that job go, either, despite any prior protests from George or anyone else in the group.

Arranger/producer Paul made plain his preferences for “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and anything else they were to tackle going forward in preparation for the live show.

We should start off by doing everything we’re going to do on the thing. Like if you’re going to do the ‘oh yeahs’ innit, you’ve got to do ’em how you’re going to do it. No use singing ’em quiet now if you’re planning on doing them loud on the night.

Paul certainly sweats the details and is quick to dictate the construction of the song, asking John to keep the chord sequence before the chorus “kind of tight,” barking “riff” to George at the appropriate times and working on the balance of “oh yeahs” with “oh noes.” Even Ringo wasn’t spared; he received explicit directions, too: “Don’t go into the swing at the end,” Paul said as he vocalized the closing drum pattern.

Overall, special focus was paid to the transition to “Everybody’s had a hard year” and the subsequent section. Paul pushes George to add “something recognizable” just prior to the bridge (“All these years I’ve been wandering around”).

The vibe, meanwhile, is generally agreeable throughout, and there’s certainly no indication that moments earlier the band was basically trying to figure out the right way to break up.  While no songs were particularly tight by this stage of the sessions, there’s a definite, steady progression here with “I’ve Got a Feeling, ” a song that had seen time each day thus far at Twickenham. The group works their way through at least one complete take (tape cuts, as usual, keep any claim here from being definite).

Content with the state of the song, and with a lengthy pivot to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” imminent, the band detours briefly into a pair of apparent improvisations that wouldn’t be heard from again (the bluesy “Woman Where You Been So Long” and the especially catchy, Little Richard-inspired “Oh! Julie, Julia”).

John cuts off the jam to ask Paul to launch into “Oh! Darling,” an admitted favorite of John’s up to his death 11 years later. Paul was again in instruction mode here — there was no solicitation for advice on working out kinks, rather the song was set and merely needed to be taught.

Paul had already played the song twice at Twickenham — both times solo at the piano for Lindsay-Hogg (“Sounds great, Fats Domino!” the film director said on the 6th), but it was without any further accompaniment and probably without the full band even in the building.  This is the first full-band take of the song, which, despite the need for Paul to shout out chords and generally sounding in a rough state, seems to have had at least some off-tape rehearsal at some point. With John’s enthusiasm for the song only helping the cause, it’s not unlikely to think “Oh! Darling” could have been a viable option for an extended live show, were it to have actually been staged. Alas, with the rooftop featuring Paul only on bass, and the setlist short, it wasn’t meant to be, but the song certainly found a happy home on Abbey Road.

With just single take achieved, George (largely off-mic) thinks beyond “Oh! Darling.”

“‘Maxwell’s’ would be even better to go on.”

Even Paul’s skeptical as the band readies to lay down the silver hammer.

You never know.”

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TMBP Extra: All that lies ahead

As I write this, it’s Friday, Jan. 31. About three-and-a-half weeks ago was Jan. 7. Check your own personal calendars, news headlines and the like. It’s not that long ago. That matters to me, and this blog, because this is where the Beatles come in.

Flip (or click) back several calendar pages – 45 in fact – and we’re at January 1969, dominated by the Get Back sessions. Jan. 31 marked its final day, a short day dedicated to nailing for film and for tape usable takes of Paul’s non-rooftop-suitable “Two of Us,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” (The clips appeared in the movie prior to the rooftop show, but were in fact filmed the next day).

What of Jan. 7? That’s where we left off last in the session timeline, at a genuine pivot point.  George suggested the group “have a divorce,” Paul said he’d thought about that, too. The Doldrums. It hung over the band.

So what happened between Jan. 7 and Jan. 31, 1969, to recast the sessions? Well, I’m not going to give it all away at once. What else would I blog about, the recording of Sentimental Journey? (That actually seems like an interesting, star-studded, intercontinental story, but I digress.) Three and a half weeks is such a short period of time, in relative terms, and we know that the group was on the brink Jan. 7. By Jan. 31 so much memorable musical output was in the bank and in the works. Factor in that there’s 10 ½ days without George after his walkout and more than a week without any rehearsals at all, and I’m left grasping at superlatives.

To wit: From Jan. 7-13 and Jan. 21-31, 1969 (18 days, and that includes weekends not spent in the studio):

  • Paul wrote the majority of “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be” and “Get Back” and debuted future solo tracks “Another Day,” “Teddy Boy” and “Back Seat of My Car”
  • George wrote: “I Me Mine,” “Old Brown Shoe” and “Something,” as well as “Wah-Wah” at home during his break from the band.
  • Everything you hear on “Let It Be,” plus “Don’t Let Me Down” was recorded.
  • We saw the birth – and if not the birth, than at least the studio debut – of Abbey Road’s “I Want You,”  “Oh! Darling” and “Octopus’s Garden.”
  • We have the rooftop show, too.
  • The Beatles even found time to meet with Allen Klein for the first time.

And I feel like I’m understating what happened.

So, there’s just a little bit of food for thought before I return to the timeline (soon!). Context is everything, and with January here and now gone, it provided the perfect chance to put into focus how much these guys got done throughout the madness they, for the most part, created themselves.

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TMBP Extra: Jan. 7, 1969 recap

paul-at-pianoBlogoversary week wraps with a look back at my posts about today in Nagra tapes history: Jan. 7, 1969, coverage of which is still in progress.

  • Still they lead him back: Jan. 7 begins with a proper debut for “The Long and Winding Road,” poignant and revealing given the mood at the sessions and the prior day’s tension.
  • Sing a lullaby: “Golden Slumbers” debuts, and the day-old “Carry That Weight” isn’t all a hurting Paul fits it with that morning.
  • Signature song: It’s the origin story for “Get Back,” the song perhaps most identified with these sessions, featuring Paul, George and an absent Jackie Lomax.
  • Power Hour: Putting Paul’s Jan. 7, 1969, morning session in context, 44 years later.
  • On their own at the holiday camp: As Mr. Epstein’s ghost lingers, what motivates The Beatles in January 1969? The group openly questions that very thing.
  • Taking the easy way out, now: The Beatles, comfortable as a studio-only band and admittedly shy to perform live but also fed up playing together, get a pep talk as they try to find the desire to stage a concert.
  • Ain’t got no ‘pow’: Still searching for the elusive hook to their live show, the Beatles recall a misguided fan-club show, consider their lack of charity and foretell one of rock’s iconic moments.
  • Entertainment is almost enough: In which the Beatles are asked to embrace showbiz, because “you may never do another television show.” Perhaps a captive audience is the answer.
  • Have a divorce: The Beatles’ frustration with each other and the state of the group — an issue they admit dates back more than a year — reaches a tipping point as a conversation that began with the continued search for a live venue concludes with the band’s future in question.
  • Pulled their socks up: “Divorce” was all talk, no action for the Beatles, who casually moved to “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Oh! Darling” (briefly) after agreeing they should split up — without actually doing so — moments earlier.
  • Joke whistlings: Amid the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” origin story, Paul wants a little more “razzmatazz” but please keep the whistle solos “straight,” OK?
  • Bangers and mashups: After making accidental musical history, The Beatles whistle while they work extensively on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

The Jan. 7 story continues with “Across the Universe” and more. Stay tuned!

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TMBP Extra: Everybody had (another) good year — 2nd Blogoversary

opening

Work begins anew for the Beatles. From the opening scene in Let It Be.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were working stiffs like the rest of us* 45 years ago today, when those four, joined by a film crew, headed back to work after New Year’s.

The hours they put in over the subsequent month has stood the test of time, as documented on the Let It Be album and film, and with the results of their labor also eventually surfacing on Abbey Road and various solo albums.

But you all knew this.

I did too before I started this blog, two years ago today. But I just didn’t know how deep the story ran and how much more there was to these sessions. Especially with so much of our knowledge of this era couched in the record’s tumultuous production and release a year later and the breakup that preceded it.

A few days ago, I rewatched the Let It Be film (I’ve been watching it every few weeks in spurts as I write, but this was purely for “leisure,” having a few beers with my wife, who wanted to see it again). Knowing what I know now, both in my own immersion in the tapes and researching what is available about the sessions (far less than you think), I’m struck by what really got me interested in the tapes in the first place: You see all of the results, but absolutely none of the motivation.

Why did they move from Twickenham to Apple all of the sudden? Who’s this guy showing up to play keyboards? Why are there so many covers, and so many songs we’d see later on Abbey Road? What’s the deal with playing on the roof? Was that the first choice for the concert they allude to really late?

The movie creates more questions than it answers. And of course, that’s a part of what makes listening to the tapes so captivating.

Finding answers is also what makes for some really deep blog posts. In 2013, I wrote 13 posts on the timeline (of 19 total posts last year) covering a little less than 3 1/2 hours on the tapes.

Wait, what?

Yes, a mere 3 1/2 hours of conversations and rehearsals were able to form the basis of 13 posts — and more than 17,000 words therein. But talk about memorable moments in just those 200-plus minutes:

It makes you wonder what kind of film Michael Lindsay-Hogg could have made if he had his way. This drama is writing itself. And with a great soundtrack!

Cheers to you all!

Cheers to you all!

And to think, we’re only at the middle of Jan. 7.  There’s a heck of a way to go, and I can’t wait to dig in.

I can’t say enough for the support I’ve gotten from readers, be it in comments, over Twitter, Facebook and from other blogs. It’s been amazing to share this experience — and communicate with — Beatles fans as passionate and curious as I am. I want to especially thank and point back to Hey Dullblog, Kenwood, A Mythical Monkey, Ultimate Classic Rock  and the York Beatles Appreciation Society for linking to me over these years. It really makes this all the more fun to know people are reading and enjoying it.

And the most special thanks to my wife, Dianne, for being my editor and putting up with my “child-like wonder” at Paul’s playing the songs he introduced Jan. 7, 1969, live daily in 2013.

Here’s a recap of the first few days:

What’s next? More of the same in 2014. Happy New Year!

*- Full disclosure: While I may be a working stiff, I actually have the day off. But back to work Saturday!

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