January 9: Homeward bounder

It was becoming clear by the end of January 9, 1969, that the Beatles would end up opting for ad-hoc over adventure.

A lengthy discussion the night before found all four Beatles showing varying levels of willingness to travel by boat to Africa for a one-off show, and some sort of decision seemed imminent. With the planning needed and a schedule to keep before the band lost Ringo Starr to an imminent acting assignment, it had to be.

But after the group slept on it, pinning down a consensus was just a dream. Any momentum to raise anchor dissipated among the members of the band, despite the continued best efforts of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to ship the group to a Roman-era amphitheater in Libya.

There was no grand discussion about the show on this Thursday, just a series of short conversations sprinkled about the day among the various principles. The Beatles were making musical progress at Twickenham Film Studio, and as the Nagra tapes proved, the overall mood was fine, certainly better than it had been a couple of days earlier. But there was no great enthusiasm for travel, and it often seemed like settling on a venue was a binary choice: Twickenham or outside Tripoli, by boat — the devil (they know) or the deep blue sea.

“If we do it here, then we’ll do it in here,” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg told Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Linda Eastman on her January 9 morning visit to the soundstage. “But if we don’t, it’s on a boat to Tripoli,” said Paul.

“Ordinary people like themselves.” On the Mad Day Out on July 28, 1968, the Beatles mingled with the British crowd at St Pancras Old Church and Gardens. Less than six weeks later, they filmed the “Hey Jude” promo film. (From Meet The Beatles For Real)

“So if you do it, it would be in here?” Linda asked.

“There’s many a story,” Paul replied.

“What will you do with all the equipment?” Linda asked. “Get it on the boat,” replied director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. “That’s what Apple’s for, really, isn’t it?”

Discussions over the show circulated around these unresolved issues: Where would it be staged, what would be its format and who would be the audience. Thus the seventh day of the session was not much different than the first, and it wasn’t even a matter of agreeing to some aspects and then pursuing another. Every aspect of the show was in flux, and every suggestion was repeated.

Airports, apartment houses, cathedrals, the Houses of Parliament — these venues were considered before and mentioned yet again on the 9th, along with a transformed Twickenham. Transformed how? That wasn’t elaborated.

The boat, which was brainstormed at length the night before, was in play. But Ringo, while never issuing his veto, was clear in his distaste for a trip to Northern Africa, much as that was Michael’s preferred and planned choice. A continued sticking point was the his loyalty to a British — or American — audience. Ringo cited long-running talent show Opportunity Knocks as an example to follow in ultimately challenging that mundanity transcends spectacle, obscurity over celebrity — at least when it came to the spectators.

“Just because he had granny on the show, someone’s mother, and they only win because audiences like to watch ordinary people like themselves. That’s one of the things to do it here. Because English people — and Americans — and the two main people, at least they can associate with them and say, ‘I could have gone there.'”

MLH: The only thing is, I really do think it’s going to be for the world.
Ringo: The biggest part of our world is America and [here].
MLH: But funnily enough, I think the way they think of you is not only for themselves but they do think of you as for everybody in the world. That was one of the things things that was good about Jude, the guy in the turban. ….

Unfortunately, the tape cuts off during this dialogue, but we can assume it’s much of the same conversation that we’ve heard before with similarly little resolution.

(For the record, Opportunity Knocks provided Apple Records with one of its greatest success stories: Mary Hopkin’s winning performance in May 1968 directly led to her signing with the Beatles’ label).

Still, Michael was planning as if he could sway Ringo eventually.

“I think we spend till the middle of next week here or til the end of the week, go out on the and the following weekend. That’s eight days,” Michael said.

Ringo: Too long.
MLH: Go out on Sunday and finish it on Sunday.
Ringo: How about Sunday and finish it on Wednesday? Who wants to stay in Tripoli?
MLH: Denis (O’Dell, film producer), isn’t Tripoli a great country?
Denis: It’s the asshole of the world there. (Laughter)
MLH: You didn’t take my feed!
Denis: Look, I have to work with him the next six months and therein after! (More laughter)

Denis next related a story of how Ringo “saved his life” in India, thanks to the drummer’s cache of Western food he left behind when he returned to England. “[I] went back to Ringo’s room and I was rummaging around … found some powdered milk and baked beans, and it was a feast. … The stuff that you and Maureen left, and that’s what I lived on secretly.”

Uncommitted as they were to a destination for a live show, the Beatles comfortably and casually addressed the composition of the gig itself.

Many times I’ve bean alone: Ringo’s diet in India. (From Beatle Photo Blog)

The band discussed staging issues (“It is a bit silly to be rehearsing sitting, facing this way, when we’re actually to be playing standing, facing that way”) and between-song banter (“First chance we’ve had to play for you dummies for a long time”) — see Jan. 9: Jokes in between for more on that.

“Is Michael around?” George asked at one point. “If we are in a groovy location place, and if there’s just people there and we’re just playing anyway, [can] we make the show about different bits and pieces of what we’ve done or [do] we have to do it in one consecutive piece?”

John: We do both, you see. We set one way when we say, ‘This is the show,” But we do, like, a dress rehearsal and another rehearsal.
George: (Laughing incredulously) Dress rehearsal?
John: Well, you know, we do it as is, we try and do it one through. We should do it about three times, and probably the middle one will have the most. And see if there’s anybody around that played piano or anything we just get him up, and let’s have a gig.

John told the future well, unaware at the time Billy Preston would be that piano player. John also didn’t realize that the man he was speaking to would walk away from the group the next day.

Leave a comment

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: It’s dead easy

It took only a few minutes on January 9, 1969, for Paul McCartney to invoke jazz guitar, classical compositions and swing percussion for a hymnal ballad being written for an R&B singer that would become a classic rock and easy listening staple.

Transcript Poem No. 1, from the Get Back Book

“Let It Be,” lovingly and deliberately crafted during much of this day, spoke clearly to Paul’s boundless musical vocabulary, and on the day’s Nagra tapes we clearly hear the well-defined, rich genetic code buried within the song. No wonder it’s so special.

Dubbed “Mother Mary” by Paul at this point, “Let it Be” received solo piano treatment early in the day’s session per Paul’s daily ritual and a brief engagement, mainly with George Harrison, midday. The full ensemble’s rehearsal treatment later in the working day crafted the song into something both concrete and familiar. But importantly and quite visibly, Paul didn’t arrange it all by himself.

To recap the chronology of “Let It Be” to this point:

September 6, 1968: The earliest-known recording of the song — released in 2018 on the White Album Deluxe — consisted of a snippet of the first verse and chorus. Paul is on piano (the group was in the midst of recording “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). If there was anything to “Let It Be” beyond this, it’s either buried inside the vaults at Abbey Road, secured in Paul’s private archives or lost amid the echoes of Cavendish Avenue. But there’s no reason to believe there was really much more, because …

January 3, 1969: While the song gained an introduction as the Beatles rehearsed in their first full day at Twickenham, Paul hadn’t advanced “Let It Be” beyond the first verse and chorus, exactly what he had in 1968.

January 8, 1969: After the weekend and a couple extra days, the song appeared on the tapes again, as Paul disclosed he wrote the song for Aretha Franklin — but he wanted the Beatles to record it, too. Paul instructed a faster pace on the drum pattern and shared the chord structure with George. The musical tag was borrowed from the introduction and applied to the song’s conclusion, as the day’s session wrapped.

On January 9, the song was a significant focal point, with rehearsals of “Let It Be” alone taking up a good 20 percent of the day’s recorded sessions on the tapes. An initial midday discussion of the tag — “just at the end of ‘Mother Mary,’ there’s, like, a riff,” as described by Paul — was nestled between rehearsals of “Get Back” and “Across The Universe,” just prior to the “Penina” origin story.

(You can hear this mention in the first few seconds here)

At once, Paul had an unfinished song — musically, it was sharp, but the lyrics were quite incomplete — and he solicited advice and allowed the song to evolve, while at the same time explicitly mapping out musical parts for the others.

(Ignore the subtitles in the below clip, for everyone’s sake. But enjoy the audio from this part of the session)

The first phase of the hour-plus sequence that concludes the day’s tapes has Paul walking the others through the song in a deliberate fashion.

To Ringo Starr: Play the drums “like swing.”

To John Lennon, who was on bass: “C … G … A … F,” Paul instructed, vocalizing the bass part with piano accompaniment and working his way through the verse and chorus. “You’ll get it, it’s dead easy.”

Paul continued to work the group through the song, repeating the verse-chorus sequence, methodically taking stock of every element. After the primer, the song’s iconic harmonies were casually introduced to the chorus. “It’s like ‘aahs,'” instructed Paul, who suggested harmonies that were to be delivered “very simply.”

Moments later, the former rejected choir boy evoked both church as well as a man who wrote music for it — Johann Sebastian Bach — as a further inspiration (it wasn’t the first time Paul drew from the Baroque-era composer).

There’s a lot of things with these chords. See that harmony there – it’s like church harmony. There’s all that bit of sustained. … it’s like Bach, just holding the notes. Can you hear it?

With the harmony in strong development, Paul shifted to broader aspects of the song, like “how should we start it?” (Days earlier, John asked the same thing of “Don’t Let Me Down,” unsure how to arrange the various elements of the song).

There was a go at opening “Let It Be” with the chorus, but that idea was scrapped quickly, with the song’s soon-to-be established format taking hold early on.

“OK, the first two choruses, just the piano,” Paul said. “Then the second thing to come in is your two voices on the ‘let it be.’ And then [it] builds. So maybe bass isn’t in till, like, halfway.”

While the harmonies were framed around a centuries-old inspiration, Paul invoked a contemporary to George for his guitar part.

“If you could just somehow hold the one note on guitar without making it sort of corny,” Paul said. “Like Wes Montgomery, the octaves.”

Too bad we don’t get to hear a complete picture of what happens next, because … cats.

Michael-Lindsay Hogg: “I don’t like dogs, I like cats.”

Ringo: “We’ve got a poodle, as well.”

With the tapes’ camera and microphone shifting to a conversation between the film’s director and drummer, we’re deprived of a clear listen to the continued development of the song for a few moments. But the instructional continued in the background, as John added a grating, deep baritone harmony that was thankfully abandoned ultimately, but was retained throughout most of the day.

As Ringo continued his conversations away from the rest of the band, including a chat with Denis O’Dell about the Magic Christian, Paul and John alone casually delivered a rendition of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” — which was the first song recorded by the Quarrymen (to an acetate) more than 10 years earlier.

Following John’s cheeky order — “Come on you gits, get on your fucking instruments!” — the rest of the group indeed followed their leader, enthusiastically launching into an full-band Little Richard medley, “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (as later covered by John) into “Jenny Jenny,” before Paul applied the breaks in a return to “Let It Be.”

As a nod to his muse, Paul swapped in “Oh, Aretha Franklin” where he would normally sing “speaking words of wisdom” at one point.

Resuming the song-crafting process, Paul sought to integrate the musical tag he mentioned earlier to George.

Paul:  I was thinking
John: You’ve been thinking again.
Paul: After we’ve done the “let it be, let it be,” done the whole thing through, we might make something of [played the riff]. … Like, without rhythm, but with you [John] and me doing it.

Upon Ringo questioning when the various instruments come in throughout the song, Paul begins make suggestions before stopping himself.

Enter Glyn Johns. Well, not really “enter” — he’d been with the group the entirety of the sessions in a somewhat nebulous production role.

“He seems to be arranging this, come on,” Paul said to laughter. “That’s good, come on.”

From his 2014 memoir, Sound Man, Glyn recalled his first days working for the Beatles:

After they had finally run through the first song a couple of times, Paul turned to me and asked what I thought they should do for an intro. I nearly fell over in shock. I thought I had been employed to just engineer and here I am in the first hour of rehearsals being asked for my input into the arrangement. I responded as quickly and confidently as I could and suggested a way of playing the intro, which they liked, and we were off. I was amazed at how quickly and easily I was accepted, each guy individually making an attempt to put me at ease and make me feel part of the team.  …

On the second day, things came to a head among the band. …

I have a very clear memory of sitting outside in the bleak surroundings of the soundstage at Twickenham at on that cold gray afternoon with Denis, the line producer for the film, both of us praying that the elation of being employed for a project with the most successful artist in the world was not about to come to a grinding halt after two days.

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 days later.

Glyn’s timeline isn’t precise; he wrote that the arrangement request was on the session’s first day (which was January 2) and George would quit the band the next day, but Paul was a late arrival on the first day at Twickenham and George’s departure happened on January 10, the day after the events of this post. Still, the recollection is valuable to get an idea of Glyn’s mindset early in the sessions regarding his role.

Glyn with the Beatles, from Glyn’s autobiography, Sound Man.

With Paul handing him the reins, Glyn was confident and direct in dictating his plan — based on Paul’s original idea — to a very receptive band.

“Absolutely nothing except the piano and voice the first time around,” said Glyn. “And then the voices, right? … Then you [George] come in where you come in. And you [John] come in the next time round.

“So it goes: Piano and voice.  Backing added [to the chorus], then it goes back to the top [the sound of high-hat is played]. George is in then. John comes in when John comes in. Then the the next chorus, you’re [Ringo] back in on your thing, and back on your [swinging drum pattern]”

Paul gave very simple approval — “that’s it” — before leading the group into a demonstration and subsequent instructions, like building up the percussion without any snares — “It’s like jazz,” George remarked —  and adding “big drums” on Ringo’s fill before the second round of the chorus.

The writer and arranger disagreed on when John and George should come in — Paul proposed they should join together, while Glyn thinks otherwise. “It’s all happening a little bit too quickly with the bass coming in at the same time, that’s all,” Glyn said. Paul deferred, and instructed George to come in for a solo after the “big” chorus, and to base it after the verse’s chords.

“Do it to your own discretions and sort of come in so it builds up, just so you’re not all in at the one time,” Paul said. “Let those two [Ringo and John] get in before you [George] come in.”

The group returned to a run-through as it was drawn up with George entering into the riff, after the second chorus. But it didn’t click and the placement of the riff becomes the next segment receiving attention.

“It’s very corny, really — the down, down, down, down [sang by Paul].” George quickly compares the riff to the end of the chorus in Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”

Glyn suggested back-to-back plays of the riff after the second chorus, an idea Paul jumped on.

Paul: See, then that can lead into the solo, ’cause I think it’ll be time by then.

John: Just use that riff into the solo and the end [of it] for the end.

Paul: It’s going to be a short one, anyway.

Paul ordered up “two lengths of solo,” while he and John added harmonies over the second one. The conclusion of “Let It Be” was then sketched: the guitar solo, another chorus and two plays of the riff, with the second one coming in slow.

A first full run of the complete song structure clocked in at barely more than two minutes, with no additional verses after the solo. That is, what we know now as the “And when the night is cloudy…” verse — that section didn’t exist yet.

“Want to do it again? George asked. “It’s quite short, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is a little bit,” Paul conceded. “It does need something else. It may be sort of ‘oohs’ though the second verse or something else when the cymbals come in. It sounds a bit sort of bare with just piano there.”

“Organ. I could play organ for that and drop it for the bass,” John suggested, forecasting Billy Preston’s eventual arrival without calling for additional personnel, for now, anyway.

Now in the final phases of the day’s rehearsals, the group put further attention on getting into and out of the riff. And in its final moments, George purposely hacked his way through the solo, building the framework of what would later appear on record. Paul gave further bass instruction to John, while George went over the drum pattern with Ringo.

Having logged more than an hour on the song at the end of the day’s session, exhaustion finally set in after a few more competent attempts of the song.  A suggested short break became a request from George to quit for the day entirely, which they all did following a final take.

As they gathered to leave, a debriefing showed the band still found room for improvement in “Let It Be”:

Paul: It should have more bits, should be more complicated.

George: I just feel [the ending] needs something really sustaining.

John: Or even some words … a big all-together.

Any further collaborative work on the “Let It Be” was going to have to wait. Paul touched on the song in a brief solo version the next morning, but later that day, George left the group.

Still, the Beatles — led by Paul but with significant help from others in the room — got through much of the musical dirty work in “Let It Be” in relatively effortless fashion on January 9.

Leave a comment

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Subconscious sabotage

“Subconscious sabotage.”

To his death, that remained John Lennon’s reflection on the recording of “Across the Universe,” what he regarded as one of his finest sets of lyrics.

Here’s John quoted in All We Are Saying, David Sheff’s full transcription of his September 1980 Playboy interview:

But the Beatles didn’t make a good record of Across the Universe. I think subconsciously sometimes we — I say “we,” though I think Paul did it more than the rest of us; Paul would … sort of subconsciously try and destroy a great song.

He subconsciously tried to destroy songs, meaning that we’d play experimental games with my great pieces, like “Strawberry Fields” — which I always felt was badly recorded. That song got away with it and it worked. But usually we’d spend hours doing little detailed cleaning-ups of Paul’s songs; when it came to mine, especially if it was a great song like “Strawberry Fields” or “Across the Universe,” somehow this atmosphere of looseness and casualness and experimentation would creep in. Subconscious sabotage. He’ll deny it, ‘cause he’s got a bland face and he’ll say the sabotage doesn’t exist. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about, where I was always seeing what was going on … I begin to think, Well, maybe I’m paranoid. But it’s not paranoid; it’s absolute truth.

The same thing happened to “Across the Universe” It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it. It never went out as the Beatles; I gave it to the Wildlife Fund of Great Britain, and then when Phil Spector was brought in to produce Let It Be, he dug it out of the Beatles files and overdubbed it. The guitars are out of tune and I’m singing out of tune ‘cause I’m psychologically destroyed and nobody’s supporting me or helping me with it and the song was never done properly.

By January 1969, “Across the Universe” was completely in the can — even down to the sound effects, which the group heard for the first time on the January 7 (George Harrison wasn’t crazy about the birds). With a dearth of fresh material, John could have made “Across the Universe” a focal point during the Get Back sessions. This was John’s chance to properly record the year-old song to his ears.

But like previous occasions at Twickenham, he wouldn’t show much passion to rehearse and rejuvenate the song. Still, “Across the Universe” remained and returned to the table January 9 as the group continued to develop new and manage more established songs for an eventual live show as the sessions began its second week.

“Across the Unicorn,” as John introduced it that day, was performed at such a glacial pace in an initial take that it broke down seconds in with laughter from John. “It shouldn’t be that slow, should it?” As a reaction, the group — as they’d often do — zipped through the song double-time after another standard attempt.

While the song was fully formed, “Across the Universe” wasn’t stage-ready. George didn’t like the birds on wax, and he didn’t like the harmony with Paul as performed at Twickenham. The interplay between George and the others on this fact should sound familiar. Really, nothing was going to change his world.

John: What didn’t you like about his har-MO-ney?
George: Just in some places.
John: Ah, some places. Well that’s details, George.
Paul: Please specify then, please specify.
George: (after singing singing the first verse), It sounds a bit forced .. It wasn’t natural.
Paul: Especially in the “Nothing’s going to change my world.”
John: Just sing that in unison.
Paul: I was planning on working on those bits anyway.

Ah yes, the bland-faced saboteur was prepared to do his worst.

Continuing to work on the song, George and Paul attempted painfully high top harmonies on “jai guru deva,” prompting John to respond, “Is that a bit much?”

With additional takes, the harmonies developed into a characteristically lovely John-Paul-George blend — it’s hard for those three voices together to sound anything but — even if the rest of the song’s redevelopment remained stagnant, at best.

“The ‘nothing’s gonna change my world’ — we got to do something to it,” John said, giving Ringo some rare (for these sessions) drumming instruction — asking for “something heavier. Just play an on-beat there. Try doing the on-beat on the snare, to push it along.”

Not significantly improved and with just a single complete take over nearly 15 minutes of work on “Across the Universe,” John was clearly uninspired by his own song, asking, “Should we do something else then?”

Paul rejected the thought, suggesting they again speed things up. A subsequent attempt indeed had a little more pep — the rhythm section didn’t drag quite as much as it had, additional lead guitar licks peppered the chorus and Paul added more extensive harmonies throughout the song. Again, the song wasn’t completed to its finish, but George wasn’t displeased overall, admitting it was a “little better that time.”

John didn’t bother to offer his own review, instead breathlessly launching into a brief improvisation that has since gone by the name “Shakin’ in the Sixties.” The group followed with an upbeat cover of Cliff Richards’ 1958 hit “Move It” that in turn spilled into a sloppy but jubilant abbreviated version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

An animated discussion of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” — the group were all clearly fans, trading lines from the show (”Very interesting …” “Say goodnight, Dick”) — led to something of a comic take of Carl Perkins’ “Tennessee,” with everyone enjoying playing.

(It’s nice to know: They may have been the greatest band on the face of the earth, but they still talked about TV at work, just like we do).

Ready to shift gears back to business, John asked, “Have we learned any new ones lately?” After a deliberately flippant butchering of the first verse of “Across the Universe,” John said, “I don’t want to do that one anymore.”

As George began to play “I Me Mine” — a new one from just the day before — John instead sang the words to “House of the Rising Sun.” They never do play “I Me Mine,” instead launching into a series of racially charged songs addressed at length in the last post.

“Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine,” ultimately back-to-back tracks on Side 1 of Let It Be, share another piece of history: By this moment on the afternoon of January 9, 1969, both songs were completely abandoned, weeks before the end of the January 1969 sessions.

“I Me Mine” was recorded from scratch in 1970 by the Threetles, while “Across the Universe” saw its original 1968 recording … embellished and warped by Phil Spector, John’s choice to produce the final soundtrack album. That’s two songs on the Let It Be LP taken not from its associated sessions, but appearing on the record purely because of the songs’ appearance in the Let It Be film.

But while George eventually took his opportunity to properly record “I Me Mine” in the final recording session before the Beatles broke up, what of John’s “Across the Universe”? While unplayed after January 9, 1969 , the song was listed among the the possible numbers for a live show on January 21, the group’s first day of sessions at Savile Row after George left on January 10 and the rest of the Beatles took a hiatus after January 14. But when George asked if they should consider and rehearse “Across the Universe” on January 23, John passed.

“No, no, ’cause it’s going out on an EP,”  John said.

Ode to a panda bear: “Across the Universe” debuted on the “No One’s Gonna Change Our World” charity LP in December 1969.

This opens up some questions. Circa some point in 1968, “Across the Universe” was tabbed for the World Wildlife Fund’s charity LP — that’s why the birds were recently overdubbed, for use on that record. But we also know — or think we know — there was a potential Yellow Submarine EP at one point considered, and that would have included the original version of “Across the Universe.” But if that was the case, it would have been profoundly strange that the other Beatles wouldn’t have been aware of it. An odd unicorn, indeed.

But the song’s eventual release wasn’t necessarily of consequence. If John wanted a new version of his song for posterity, this was the time to craft it on his terms. The Beatles resurrected “One After 909,” after all, and breathed life into a song that had a truly bland recording gathering dust in the vault.

While it wasn’t confirmed in any way, there were certainly some occasional discussions by this early point that these sessions could easily yield a new album, in addition to serving as rehearsals for a live show. Stuck for a month, John could have rehearsed and re-calibrated the absolute daylights out of “Across the Universe.” Lord knows Paul played the hell out of “Get Back” and his songs during the sessions. But here we are on January 9, 1969, and “Across the Universe” was completely discarded, both as an option for the live show but also as a song to be revisited and rerecorded. Who sabotaged whom? Or even what?

Maybe our sources aren’t really reliable after all. Here’s John in January 1971, from his iconic “Lennon Remembers” interview in Rolling Stone:

You know, we all say a lot of things when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I’m probably doing it now, I don’t know what I say. You see, everybody takes you up on the words you said, and I’m just a guy that people ask all about things, and I blab off and some of it makes sense and some of it is bullshit and some of it’s lies and some of it is – God knows what I’m saying.

Needless to say, this issue hangs over pretty much every corner of Beatles scholarship. At least John had the self-awareness to admit this, as problematic a fact  it is.

So was the original recording of “Across the Universe” a victim of “subconscious sabotage”? Regardless of the answer, John — who we can certainly believe was never satisfied with any of the recordings of the song, even the one he helped record with David Bowie in 1975 — had the blank palate of  the January 1969 sessions to craft it in any direction he pleased. But he was bored with the song, whether he would admit it or not, and took it no further after just a week into the sessions, despite a paucity of new material.

The song as recorded would be released, as planned, in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s “No One’s Gonna Change Our World” LP with John’s voice sped up, and again in May 1970 on Let It Be, further adorned and with his voice slowed down.

Subsequent official releases of “Across the Universe” came in 1996 (Anthology 2), 2003 (Let It Be … Naked) and 2018 (White Album deluxe release). Each of those stripped down versions came after John’s death and with Paul’s presumptive partial oversight.

And every recorded version of the Beatles’ “Across The Universe”  was sourced from the original recordings from early February 1968.

1 Comment

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Power politics

Pablo Fanque, Mao Zedong and Edgar Allen Poe are among the historical figures with a cameo in a Beatles lyric. During the Get Back sessions, former Prime Ministers — and famed taxmen — Harold Wilson and Edward Heath joined a more exclusive club, making an encore appearance in song.

A reasonable argument can be made that the improvisations littering these sessions aren’t really songs at all, but instead casually jammed interludes capturing the moment, intended to be forgotten if not for the tapes that recorded it all. But ultimately we do have the tapes, and those for January 9, 1969, contain a suite of performances inspired by a subject even more ponderous than taxation: the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference, which was in its third day as the Beatles continued their sixth at Twickenham, about 10 miles away.

Paul McCartney had already drawn upon the contemporary issue of the East Asian community’s flight from Kenya to Britain, conceiving the “No Pakistanis” iteration of “Get Back” that would be a part of the song for a few more days. After a thirty-minute detour that included a revisiting of “Across the Universe” and the bassist’s recounting of the “Penina” origin story, the news of the day recaptured Paul’s imagination.

Paul’s performance began seemingly unprompted, launched from a flippant attempt of the “House of The Rising Sun” that itself began as a bit of a mockery of George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” — a song that was proposed to be rehearsed. Instead John launched into the song popularized by The Animals in 1964.

That brings the story to “Commonwealth” (or “The Commonwealth Song” as it’s often referred to. Also, if an improvisation isn’t really a song, does it really have a title?).

Paul channels Elvis vocally — and picks up on John’s ability to script a “newspaper song.” George doesn’t even participate at the outset; instead he discusses equipment issues with Glyn Johns.

The tabloids served as a literal jump-off point. From the front page of the January 9, 1969, Daily Mirror, under the three-deck headline “WARNING TO THE PREMIERS: NO EXTRA IMMIGRANTS”:

Britain has no intention of easing her immigration restrictions to take in extra Asians forced out of East Africa.

Home Secretary James Callaghan is making this clear in private talks with Commonwealth leaders now meeting in London.

He is telling them that many Britons share the views of Tory M P Mr. Enoch Powell, who wants to stop further immigration and encourage migrants to go home.

While Mr. Callaghan was taking this action, Premier Harold Wilson was rejecting accusations of discrimination at the Premiers’ conference inside London’s Marlborough House.

Accusations of discrimination by Pakistani Foreign Minister Mr. Arshad Husain brought an immediate riposte from Premier Wilson.

He reminded Mr Husain that Britain had brought in penal laws to ban discrimination.

Mr. Wilson told him: “Do not hold me responsible for the phenomenon known as Enoch Powell.”

While Wilson and Heath reappear in Beatles song, it’s fellow Member of Parliament Enoch Powell at the center of Paul’s muddled tale.

Here’s a taste of the first set of lyrics, transcribed as lovingly as possible for something at times so unintelligible:

Tonight Enoch Powell said get our immigrants, immigrants, you better go home, ha ha ha ha ha
Tonight Premier Wilson said to the immigrants, you better get back to your Commonwealth homes
Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said you better get back, home
Now Enoch Powell said to the folks, he said … the color of your skin
… So Ted Heath said to Enoch Powell, he said you better get out or heads are gonna fall (?)
He said, Enoch Powell, Enoch you better go home

A deeply inflammatory political figure, Powell’s biography is defined by his April 20, 1968, “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he dramatically stoked racial fears, viciously attacking mass immigration from Commonwealth countries. Powell would lose his position in the Shadow Cabinet (“Ted Heath said to Enoch Powell, he said you better get out”) while deeply accelerating a serious divide in British public opinion. (In the 1970s, Eric Clapton would publicly embrace Powell, a terrible idea the Beatles pal would ultimately say he regretted.)

The “Rivers of Blood” speech had indescribable impact, and as an American writing more than 50 years later, I’m certainly dealing in deep understatement.

On the Beatles’ timeline, Powell’s 1968 speech coincided with the immediate aftermath of their trip to India (George alone remained overseas at the time). A month after the speech, Paul was put on the record regarding Powell as John and Paul were interviewed on their promotional tour to launch Apple.

Asked about “this racial business over in England,” Paul offered a simple answer: “That thing’s just the same question everywhere, you know? It’s no different in England. It’s a bit less harmful in England, but it’s the same thing. Some people don’t like other people ‘cause they’re not the same as them.”

“Yes?” – John Lennon, January 9, 1969

Plain-speaking regarding Powell in 1968, Paul was in standard form singing about him eight months later, on January 9, 1969, prioritizing the sound of the song over lyrics and meaning, even moreso in subsequent verses. Presaging the Kinks’ brilliant “Victoria” by several months, Paul offers a tour of mostly Commonwealth locales (Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, West Indies, “Old Calcutta”) as well as Europe and “Tucson, Africa.”

(“Old Calcutta” could also be heard as “Oh! Calcutta!” a wink to John’s involvement in the forthcoming stage show, while the reference to Tucson was both an acknowledgement of the location’s growing importance the to “Get Back” lyric as well as an indicator of Paul’s monumental disinterest in improvising any sort of serious lyric to this song.)

But the clear focal point of the track is the chorus, featuring an animated John interjecting a responsive “Yes?” to each of Paul’s calls of “Commonwealth,” in a shrill, deliberately cartoonish accent, described in the book that accompanied the Let It Be LP as that of a “Boston matron.”

(Yet another aside: In a remarkable coincidence in this song’s story, Boston, Lincolnshire — site of a huge influx of immigrants in the 21st century — tallied the highest percentage of “leave” supporters in the Brexit vote.)

The first time John chimed with his “Yes?” response, Paul sounded sincerely taken by surprise, unable to suppress a laugh. This interplay, enjoyed throughout half of the song, is what makes “Commonwealth” memorable and somewhat remarkable (Paul would use a similar vocal inflection himself elsewhere in the song). Partial film of the performance of the song — focused on John alone — makes clear he is enjoying this one-off.

The collaboration of sorts was sustained throughout, as John quickly improved Paul’s original verse-closing words:

Paul: Commonwealth, but it’s much too wealthy for me
John: Much too common for me.

Paul was strong on the fly, but John was even more clever, unsurprisingly.

As “Commonwealth” petered out, Paul delivered a brief coda consisting merely of the words, “Oh, Enoch Powell … powerless” (sounding very close to “Powell-less”)

This brief interlude spilled into another lengthy improvisation and an additional moment John and Paul used to minimize the junior songwriter in the band. Originally intended by George to be an electrified take of “For You Blue,” Paul hijacked the song and veered into another direction, interjecting several mentions of “white power” — again, as inspired by headlines satirically and obviously not a celebration of such a thing — and was met with an off-timed “Get Off!” response from John. The song quickly evolved into Paul and John — both continued in high spirits — trading real and fictional names in a roll call over an enjoyable, loose blues rocker. Paul occasionally throws in a “Can you dig it?” or “Let me hear it” after a name.

More than 40 names are called out — usually by Paul — including multiple Quarrymen (Eric Griffiths, Ivan Vaughn and John Lennon himself), other Beatles insiders (Mal Evans, Peter Brown), many others in entertainment (James Brown, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield, David Frost) or in politics (Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon), with the likes of Superman alter ego Clark Kent and stain-killer Super Ajax also receiving call-outs. Paul and John are clearly enjoying every moment of it.

At one early point, the song breaks down, with John asking what the group should properly rehearse next.

George: I’ll do one, but it has acoustic guitar and no backing.
John: Get off!

And with that, “Get Off” picked right back up. It was a funny moment, with delicious comic timing on John’s part, but another occasion in which they’d offend and unnerve George.

Soon after, George begins to sing and play “For You Blue” only to have John and Paul continue to play “Get Off” over him.

During the final moments before the group did ultimately work on “For You Blue” (covered at length here), John seemingly pokes at George, who two days earlier suggested a divorce from the group and one day later would in fact temporarily leave the Beatles.

Paul (following some feedback): Noise is a little too loud for me.
John: Leave the group then, if you don’t like it (giggles).

Sure, the Beatles played “God Save the Queen” on the rooftop, but they wouldn’t be quite as overtly political in such a burst for the balance of the sessions. And while “Get Off” (and “Commonwealth,” like the similarly jubilant “Suzy Parker” ) vanished from the group’s memory, never to appear on an official release, a little bit of “Get Off” lived on, both as a stream-of-consciousness performance and through the very use of one of the song’s key phrases in “Dig It.”

With “For You Blue” begging to be rehearsed, Paul and John spent 15 minutes comically spanning and panning global issues. But all politics are ultimately local, and there were clearly internal band politics at play.

1 Comment

Filed under Day by day

TMBP Extra: Here, there and everywhere

I’ve been sharing my insights on the Beatles’ Get Back sessions on this blog for the last seven years, and it’s been with great joy that recently I’ve been able to share my voice as well at some other fine locations online.

Deep thanks to Robert Rodriguez for engaging me in a terrific, lengthy discussion on the Something About the Beatles podcast on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the January 1969 sessions. Log onto your favorite podcast app (here it is on iTunes) or just click below. Perhaps do both!

Additionally, a huge thank you to the FabFourArchivist for having me on for a couple of cameos on his YouTube series about the road to the rooftop.

Greetings to all the new readers and followers who have found this site thanks to the above! We’re now more than 50 years removed from the Get Back sessions — and with this one, 100 posts on this blog — and we can’t stop talking about it. And why would we?

2 Comments

Filed under Extra

TMBP: Let It Be anew

The Beatles wanted to make a Lord of the Rings movie, going back more than 50 years. A half century later, they’ve got director Peter Jackson aboard, but for an entirely different film. Will this end up a fantasy, too?

Having maintained a monthlong silence on the 50th anniversary of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, the Beatles raised the Dead Men of Dunharrow (that’s the Army of the Dead if you only saw the film) on the anniversary of the rooftop concert.

Quick takeaways here:
• The selection of Jackson was no accident. He obviously has a masterful storytelling ability while working within the constraints of very detailed and very iconic source material. While I don’t anticipate him to introduce Tauriel to, say, sit in on saxophone, I’m expecting something we’re not expecting.

Jackson’s a superfan, too, which can only be a good thing.

• I don’t believe having an “upbeat” Let It Be film is necessarily revisionist history — or fantasy, for that matter. I’ve long maintained there was plenty of sugar to along with the medicine when considering January 1969. It would be disingenuous not to include the tension, the arguing, the passive-aggressive relationships between the band members, and I think Jackson’s quote saying there was “none of the discord this project has long been associated with” is an overstatement. To whitewash that aspect of the sessions would be problematic (though not surprising, given the promotional work recasting of the White Album sessions 50 years later). But it would be likewise false to resissue the film as merely their “winter of discontent,” not that we should expect that.

Paul McCartney and Michael Lindsay-Hogg (right) “on the set” of Let It Be. (Via IMDB)

• Make no mistake: Let It Be is Michael Lindsay-Hogg‘s film. He wasn’t just behind the scenes, he was an active participant in the sessions. Listen to the tapes (or leave it to me and read this fine blog instead), and you can hear MLH’s voice more than anyone else who’s not in the band. I’m very curious to see how Jackson works with MLH’s ubiquity — he’s central to every discussion about the live show, and perhaps he’ll retroactively get his first acting credit, that’s how much screen time he could get, in theory.

• And about that live show. I’ve written it before, but clearly the film’s arc should be (and have been) the sort of near-comedy of the greatest group in the world wondering what to do next and how — and that includes debating their own future —  throwing out every idea they can think of, only to have someone argue against it. Finally, after ups and downs (George quitting), the villian (Twickenham Film Studios) is vanquished, a bit player from their past (Billy Preston) emerges out of nowhere to help return order, and everyone realizes the simplest solution (rooftop show) is what they were looking for all along. The farther one travels, the less one knows, so find the answer at home.

• I won’t call this a buried lede, but not even mentioned in the social media blitz — only the Beatles’ press release — is this news:

Following the release of this new film, a restored version of the original Let It Be movie directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg will also be made available.

Quite the “oh, by the way …”

This is, of course, good news. Let It Be is a critical document, too, despite it’s obvious flaws, and we haven’t seen an official release since it the days of LaserDisc and VHS.

• The 140 hours of audio cited by Jackson is quite a bit more — in excess of  50 hours or so — than we’ve already have heard leaked and bootlegged over the years. It could be 24 more hours of discussions about a live show (I’m hoping) or 24 more hours of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer outtakes (I’m expecting). Reality, as usual, will likely be somewhere in between. I can’t see anything that changes the direction of history, but maybe we do get a few more specifics on locations. And I’m sure we get some improvisations or clipped covers we never heard.

“It’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.” – Peter Jackson

• I’ll admit I was wrong about something — but I’ll bury it at the bottom of this post. I never thought the Beatles would release Let It Be while Paul, Ringo and Yoko were still with us. And I thought, once Paul announced several months ago that some new version of the film was to be released, we’d probably just get Let It Be content lumped in as part of an Abbey Road deluxe set — “Beatles ’69.”  But I was wrong there, too. Mea culpa.

• That said, we didn’t hear a thing about getting some of the audio outtakes — Nagra or otherwise — finally released. I’m still not expecting any sort of sweeping set — do you really think they’re going to put out tapes of Paul calling a newspaper “cunts” or, more relevantly, acknowledging how negative they are and doubting their future? — but maybe we will get a disc or two of some January 1969 upbeat highlights — “Suzy Parker,” “Oh Julie, Julia,” “Commonwealth,” etc. And there’s certainly enough terrific material to fill several Abbey Road “demo” discs, too.

The most disappointing part of the announcement is the timeline: It hasn’t been announced yet. But simply to get news of a new (and old) Let It Be is reason enough to celebrate with an unexpected party.

2 Comments

Filed under Extra

Jan. 9: No Pakistanis

“I canceled the papers last week,” George Harrison told the rest of the Beatles early on January 9, 1969. “And they won’t stop them coming.”

Whether George reluctantly toted the Daily Express and Daily Mirror from his Kinfauns home or if they were delivered otherwise to Twickenham Film Studio, the newspapers were put to good use by the Beatles that Thursday.

“It’s about going away, and then the chorus is ‘Get Back.’ Actually, it’s not about anything.” – Paul McCartney

When looking for inspiration, we all know of John Lennon’s willingness to read the news (oh, boy), but it was Paul who ripped from the headlines to fill out some lyrics in his signature song on the sixth day of the Get Back sessions.

“Get Back” emerged from a jam two days earlier with a small set of lyrics — most of which would ultimately survive — including “she thought she was a woman, but she was another man,” “say she got it coming, but she gets it while she can” and “knew it couldn’t last.” The chorus would never change: “Get back to where you once belonged.”

The newspapers informed additional verses to give meaning to the chorus.

But first, let’s get back to George’s opening quote. After complaining about the papers’ non-cancellation, he continued: “George Gale is such an ignorant bastard.”

Gale, who at the time wrote for the Mirror, probably caught George’s venom because of that day’s column ridiculing marijuana users in the context of the release of the Wootton Report on the potential decriminalization of the drug.

But pot, for people in this country, is a new way of fooling themselves. A man is not made more free by taking pot. Quite the reverse. He is simply made more stupid.

The whole column is the opposite of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” so the reason for disdain is obvious.

But Gale’s politics would have been antithetical to George and the rest of the band since their teenage years. It was in 1956 — the year the Quarrymen were formed — that Gale famously wrote under the headline: “Would YOU let your daughter marry a black man?”

Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech was given in April 1968, less than year earlier, and its impact continued to resonate (Powell will soon enter this day’s story, too). Race issues remained a terrible plight and severely divisive issue across Britain into 1969 — and, obviously, before, beyond and basically everywhere throughout human history. In the specific context of immigration to Britain, it was in front-page news on January 9 as the Daily Mirror shouted on Page 1: “WARNING TO THE PREMIERS: NO EXTRA IMMIGRANTS”

BRITAIN has no intention of easing her immigration restrictions to take in extra Asians forced out of East Africa. … Mr. Callaghan insists that if Britain is forced to take more Asians from Kenya and Uganda, there will be a cutdown on other Commonwealth immigrants. The Home Secretary is giving the Premiers the strongest warning yet of serious trouble in Britain if extra migrants have to be accepted.

And that takes us back to “Get Back,” the first song the Beatles worked on after lunch. Musically it surges, spunky and alive with the four Beatles perhaps recognizing this is the upbeat rock song they were searching for a week into the sessions. It was likely the first time John played on the song, having arrived after the others when it was first played two days earlier.

From a purely musical standpoint, the song was hot and was rivaled by “One After 909” at this point in pure energy — as far as their originals were concerned. By this early moment in the song’s life, it already had the guitar riff and Ringo’s identifiable cymbal crash during the chorus.

“Think of some words, if we can. I don’t know what it’s about,” Paul admitted. “It’s about going away, and then the chorus is ‘Get Back.’ Actually, it’s not about anything” (said to laughter).

That was fine with George. “We’ll just have those words, just words like [the Band’s] ‘Caledonia Mission.’ They’re just nothing about anything, it’s just rubbish.”

So don’t count George as finding any deeper meaning into that Big Pink cut, in its hexagrams or Arkansas towns. The movement Paul needed was on his shoulder: Just write words that track to the tune, regardless of any actual meaning, and it’ll all eventually shake out.

Despite Paul’s admission to the contrary, to this point, the song did start to find a vague lyrical angle. Joe and Theresa entered the picture this afternoon — JoJo and Loretta would join eventually in their place. There remained the pursuit of California grass. Tucson — the Arizona city in which Linda Eastman went to college and close to where the McCartneys would later own a ranch (and Linda would pass away) — was specifically named for the first time.

Additional lyrics — often turns of phrases rather than coherent statements — emerged during the more than 20 minutes of high quality and high energy vamping and jamming. One pass through the verse is in the first-person, with the singer the protagonist who was a loner leaving his home for California and who was getting back to where he once belonged.

But for the majority of the rest of the time, Paul draws from the immigration news in his search for a relevant lyric, alternating verses about a Puerto Rican and a Pakistani, with the East Asian community’s flight from Kenya still such a big part of the news in Britain. (As a footnote, Paul visited Kenya in 1966, going on a safari with Mal Evans)

As you can hear below, there were several points where Paul simply garbled over a name, phrase or section of lyric just for filler. Elsewhere, we get the beginning of a narrative, with an intolerant public imploring the different nationalities “get back to where they once belonged.” The below clip compiles each of the January 9 takes of “Get Back” — the further you get in the clip, the more Paul plays with different lyric ideas.

A sampling:

  • A man came from Puerto Rico, oh, he joined the middle class/Where I came from, I don’t need no Puerto Ricans
  • Take the English job, only Pakistanis riding on the buses, man
  • All the people said we don’t need Pakistanis, so you better travel home
  • Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs
  • Don’t need no Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.A.
  • Don’t want no black man

When tapes from these sessions first leaked into the bootleg market in the mid-1970s, we would simply get single songs stitched together with no context, little dialogue and guessed song titles — like ones called “No Pakistanis.” It’s obvious the Beatles were simply making a social commentary, satirizing the segment of the public who harbored the feelings they were singing. But by the mid-80s, a wide exposure of these takes by The Sun — lacking the needed conversational context or tracing of the evolution of the song — posited the Beatles must have been xenophobes themselves. Gotta sell papers, after all. There probably aren’t too many times Paul ever commented on bootlegged tapes, but Rolling Stone got him on record in 1986, responding to the racism claims:

Sensational journalism – The Sun is not a highly reputable newspaper. What this thing is, I think, is that when we were doing Let It Be, there were a couple of verses to “Get Back” which were actually not racist at all – they were antiracist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living sixteen to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of “Get Back,” which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about “too many Pakistanis living in a council flat” – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis. The Sun wishes to see it as a racist remark. But I’ll tell you, if there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black. We were kind of the first people to open international eyes, in a way, to Motown. Whenever we came to the States they’d say, “Who’s your favorite artists?” And we’d say, “Well, they’re mainly black, and American – Motown, man. It’s all there, you’ve got it all.” I don’t think the Beatles ever had much of a hang-up with that.

The reference he makes to the line about “too many Pakistanis living in a council flat” actually came on January 10, when the Beatles continued to work on the song. But the point remains. The song has been misunderstood by some unwilling or unable to see the nuance (search around the Internet for “Beatles” and “racist” at your own risk, even moreso if you read any comments).

We have on tape evidence the “get back” element of the chorus came before anything else on January 7, and was likely a riff on Jackie Lomax’s “Sour Milk Sea,” and we can reasonably dispense of the myth the song’s true origin was political. It’s also pretty clear Paul simply liked the flow of “Pakistani” and “Puerto Rican” — words with four syllables that were easy to rhyme — and was searching for something that sounded appealing, while not shying away from something political. At one point he clumsily rhymes “Puerto Rican” and “Mohican” (a Native American tribe), a perfect example of how little thought out the lyrics were at this point. He was just searching.

John Lennon later said “Get Back” was directed at Yoko Ono, anyhow. But more on that another post.

The 20-plus-minute post-lunch writing and rehearsal session marked the end of the group’s work on “Get Back” for January 9, although they’d return to it nearly every day they were in the studio until the end of the month. It wasn’t the last time the group included the racial element in the song, and it wasn’t the last time they’d address the issue in song on January 9, either.

4 Comments

Filed under Day by day

TMBP Extra: Jan. 9, 1969 recap

paulv2Paul McCartney began January 9, 1969, at the piano sketching out “Another Day,” but it was anything but for the sixth day of the Beatles’ sessions at Twickenham, where things started to get a little testy, while musically it remained very interesting.

There are a few more posts to come about January 9 that will get added here before we turn to the 10th, when things really went haywire.

  • Just another day: The Beatles begin their second week at Twickenham with Paul at the piano and his muse by his side as he debuts an important future solo classic.
  • Road work: Twickenham is Paul’s songwriting lab as the morning’s tapes reveal his effort to put lyrics to several works-in-progress, like “Carry That Weight” and “The Long and Winding Road,” among others.
  • Last-night song:  George Harrison lifts the veil on a proper version of “For You Blue,” but are the other Beatles eager to bite on another George original?
  • Jokes in between: Harmony and discord, joy and petulance. It’s a roller-coaster of moods for the members of the Beatles as they continued work on their core set at Twickenham.
  • Another kind of gig: Get yourself well done with the backstory of the Beatles’ lively and perpetually mysterious “Suzy Parker.”
  • Love from Paul: Take an exceedingly deep dive into Paul McCartney’s “Penina,” one of the most obscure originals from the Beatles era and a “£20,000 holiday tip.”
  • No Pakistanis: Inspired by current events, Paul McCartney works on a set of satirical, racially charged — and later misunderstood — lyrics to “Get Back.” Putting this Beatles’ session into appropriate context 50 years later.

Leave a comment

Filed under Extra, Recap

TMBP Extra: Let it be first

Like so many of the outtakes on the “sessions” discs unearthed and unleashed on the most deluxe version of the Beatles eponymous double-album, this newest version of “Let It Be” — the oldest recording of the song — is acutely alive and profoundly captivating.

As performed on September 5, 1968 — the day after recording their iconic performance of “Hey Jude” for Frost on Sunday — here’s the world’s greatest tea-room orchestra:

Fifty years in the books, and Beatles history still has room for an edit.

In some ways, this one-minute, 18-second cosmic jam capturing the band in medias resbetween takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — is just what should be expected, even if its very existence is still something of a minor surprise. A White Album-era version of “Let It Be” felt apocryphal, despite established knowledge rooting it in fact. And so it is that the disjointed, driving performance sounds like it’s out of time — it was.

Let’s dig in on some finer points:

Brother Malcolm, Paul and George Martin during the White Album sessions in 1968

Brother Malcolm, Mother Mary and the lyrics of “Let It Be”
Notably, the lyrics of the song hardly advanced in the three months between September 5, 1968 and January 3, 1969, the first recorded performance of “Let It Be” at the sessions that would ultimately bear its name.

Here’s Paul grooving alone at the piano for the song’s debut on the Nagra tapes:

The lone addition, lyrically: “In my darkest hour, she is standing right in front of me.”

“She,” of course, is Mother Mary, who presumably was in the very original lyric sourced from Paul’s dream about his mother but was absent in the 1968 early attempt. That featured “Brother Malcolm,” a nod to do-it-all assistant Mal Evans. The reference to Mal was inconsistent over January 1969 but endured to the very end of the sessions. Here are the Beatles on the final day of the sessions, January 31, 1969:

It wasn’t until a few days into the sessions at Savile Row, on January 25, 1969, that most of the verses had been added. But Paul started teaching “Let It Be” to others in the band on January 8, when we hear Paul naming chords to the others to learn. That’s also when Paul disclosed that, even at this early stage, he planned to have Aretha Franklin cover the song.

Interludes
Students of the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions have heard this sort of thing several times before, someone in the group veering into an original, a cover, an improvisation between songs, during a transition during a rehearsal or purely as an aside.

Some of these drop-in songs were even the same for the White Album and Get Back/Let It Be sessions:

And just as future songs were sampled and explored during jams in 1968, they were in ‘69 too. And probably long before that as well. A few examples:


Divine intervention
This initial iteration of “Let It Be” may not have had “Mother Mary” but it did feature the hand of “God.”

The September 5 session of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the one that featured Eric Clapton as the Beatles’ guest on lead guitar. That places Eric at the origin of “Let It Be,” and he can be heard adding a few guitar licks to the improvisation. (Listen to the very end and you can hear George close the track imploring his friend to don his headphones: “Cans on, Eric.”)

A full 31 years later Eric would get to play the song again, joining Paul on stage at the 1999 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. Paul was inducted for his solo career, but the show closed with, naturally, “Let It Be.”

Clapton didn’t take the solo — that’s Robbie Robertson of the Band, the group whose sound the Beatles sought to emulate during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.

This same induction ceremony honored producer George Martin, who happened to miss the September 5, 1968, session whilst on vacation.

Times of trouble?
Even Paul called the White Album “the tension album.” John said worse in the early ’70s. Ringo literally left the band for a few weeks in the summer of ’68.  Four Beatles, each recording in a separate studio — we all know the stories.

But while history is static, perceptions are variable.

The 2018 reissue’s promotional campaign works to dispense with some of the darker sides of the session, from Giles Martin’s interviews to the numerous dismissals of dysfunction in the lovely hardbound book packaged with the deluxe edition. Indeed, there’s plenty of laughter and carefree spirit throughout the White Album outtakes. The outtake set even begins with laughter among John, Paul and Yoko, as if to hammer the point home.

The Get Back/Let It Be sessions inherit the same sour reputation, yet it would be very easy to compile 50 tracks from January 1969 filled with laughter, chatter and the indication that nothing could ever tear these guys apart. And I bet if and when we do see a formal reissue campaign of Let It Be (which I suspect will be attached to a larger Abbey Road/”Beatles in ‘69” re-release), we’ll see that very recalibration of Beatles history. More “Suzy Parker,” and not quite so many calls for a divorce.

And that’s OK. I’ve long posited that things weren’t necessarily so bad — or at least that much worse — for the Get Back/Let It Be sessions than in the period immediately before and after. Naturally, the reality lies somewhere in between. Neither the White Album nor Let It Be are outliers — that’s just how the group was post-1967.

On January 7, 1969, the day before the rest of the Beatles learned the chords to “Let It Be,” George Harrison made it clear: “Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away, it hasn’t been the same…  [the Beatles had] “been in doldrums for at least a year.” That takes the group to before their trip to India in February 1968.

Together at the beginning of that trip, the individual Beatles returned to England separately. For the final stage of their career, they produced enduring music, though they may be parted.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Extra

Jan. 9: Love from Paul

Almost fifty years have passed, and we’re still unsure of how the Beatles’ ditty “Suzy Parker” came about. But the origin story for “Penina” — discussed and introduced by Paul McCartney a few hours after the somewhat mysterious performance of “Suzy Parker” — quite literally appeared in print on the very day we’re discussing, January 9, 1969, in the Daily Express.

A newsworthy trip: Paul in Portugal, December 1968

“Penina” is usually lumped into the pile of Lennon/McCartney songs given away to other artists. Why, you may have seen it on the 1979 EMI compilation “The Songs Lennon And McCartney Gave Away,” alongside far more notable tracks like Peter & Gordon’s “World Without Love” and Billy J. Kramer’s “Bad to Me.” Those were No. 1 hits. “Penina” wasn’t even released in the U.K. or U.S.

So how does “Penina” fit in and how did it come that Paul is the sole author?

Paul, who vacationed in Portugal in mid-December 1968 with Linda Eastman, her daughter Heather, and Beatles biographer Hunter Davies — a trip highlighted by Paul proposing to Linda and her discovery she was pregnant with Mary —  recounted a story of showing up drunk at La Penina, a hotel resort, one night around midnight.


“See the bit in the paper where it said about me giving a song to some group, in William Hickey this morning?” Paul asked the rest of the group a little bit after lunch.

As printed in that day’s Daily Express, under the headline “Beatle Paul writes a £20,000 holiday tip”:

McCartney had spent an evening listening to the resident band at the resort’s luxury Penina Golf Hotel. He decided to give a tip in appreciation. And composed a few bars — called Penina — for the lucky bandleader, Anibal Cunha. To help them along McCartney beat out the rhythm on the drums.

Paul elaborated: “And I sat in on drums, and they said, ‘Give us a song.’ So I said, OK.”

Good lord, is that all it takes? Someone get me in the same room as Paul McCartney, I have absolutely no good material.

“’I’ve been to Albufera, had a great time there,’” Paul sang before continuing to describe the scene. “It was called La Penina, the hotel. And they were all digging it and singing along, and it was good. And William Hickey [in the paper] said he’s giving away this 20,000-pound song.”

Per the paper’s report:

As the shareholders of Northern’ Songs (currently standing at 33s. a share) know, McCartney compositions never fail to net £20,000 at the very least.

Northern Songs shareholders in fact are presently benefiting from a rif, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney borrowed-from another performer, Jimmy Scott. The Marmalade version of this song topped the hit parade this week for the first time.

Paul didn’t mask his disgust with the report:

“Cunts. That’s what you write something, for a riff. You don’t say ‘hello,’ and you haven’t got a riff when you say ‘hello.’ That’s the riff I got off of Jimmy Scott, those two words (“Ob-la-di, Ob-La-Da”). You’d think I’d taken his life. It’s not as though he wrote the song.”

This wasn’t the only time on these tapes Paul would show his frustration with Jimmy Scott regarding ownership of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Over the years, however, Paul’s softened his view on Scott. This is from just weeks ago, during his promotional tour for Egypt Station:

Meanwhile, back in 1969, the newspaper report continued, quoting Apple press officer Derek Taylor:

“John and Paul saw him right,” says Mr. Taylor. “They, are themselves often asked for help on their travels. And it just isn’t possible for them to refuse.”

Having only heard of “Penina” from the newspaper and Paul’s own recollection, the rest of the group finally had their chance to hear — and participate — in what would be the lone known Beatles performance of the song.” Paul has a vague memory of the lyrics, and the rest of the group clearly has no idea how the song goes (this is in deep contrast to “Suzy Parker,” by the way, lending more support to the argument that song wasn’t a pure improvisation). Here’s how they sounded:

It’s not quite “Elanor Rigby” — it’s hardly “Wild Honey Pie” (or “Fuh You” for that matter, to evoke Egypt Station again). But it’s a Paul McCartney original and from the same moment in time he was writing songs like “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” so it deserves to be at least more than a footnote.

Been to Albufeira, I had a few drinks there
And now I’m on my way home
I really don’t care
La Penina, La Penina, La Penina hotel
Well it’s been a long road …

OK, maybe that could be a footnote. (Albufeira, by the way, was where Paul wrote the lyrics to “Yesterday” in 1965. How’s that for a footnote?)

When the song was finally released a few months later — by Anibal Cunha’s band, Jotta Herre — the sleeve proudly trumpeted the Beatle’s songwriting credit. And it’s a lone McCartney credit, not Lennon/McCartney. The eventual lyrics have just three verses, with the final one ending with a first-person reference. It’s a languid offering, plaintive at best sporting simplistic lyrics that recap the evening sung over a bland melody.

(Chorus)
Penina, Penina, Penina one night
Penina, Penina, Penina one night

I’ve been to Albufiera
And I had a good time there
And then I came to Penina
And found good friends

Drinking liquid, making music
Love has come to my heart
Beat the drums take me home
Helping friends free my soul

Time has come, time has gone
Time to bet for keeping friends
Take my arm girl, lets go home
Thank you all, love from Paul

In challenging the report that it was a £20,000 song, Paul was clearly giving the song little merit in January 1969. After all, it was just a riff!

In short time, however, Paul was interested in taking a little bit of ownership in “Penina,” starting soon thereafter with his blessing the band to use his name as a promotional tool.

In an interview with a Portuguese magazine published in July 1969 and beautifully titled “Jotta Herre — the godchildren of Paul McCartney,” Cunha disclosed further communication with the bearded Beatle.

Translated, roughly, from Portuguese to English via Google Translate:

I have only one thing to regret, and we must involve the name of Paul McCartney and the friendship he gave us. But, in truth, he also forced us to do so. And in a letter he sent us he tells us categorically. “Use my name without hesitation, let it be used for your publication.” And, finally, the commercial entities linked to the release of the album knew this and took advantage of the idea. Well Paul’s name has a made market and it is assumed that it will be commercially valid.

The song was not really that commercially valid, to use that term. Neither the original version nor a subsequent cover that year by two-time Portuguese Eurovision contestant Carlos Mendes — whose cut appeared on the aforementioned EMI compilation — appears to have made much of a dent in sales, despite the McCartney name behind the song. Perhaps it was the quality of the song that played a role.

A quarter century later, in a 1994 interview in his Club Sandwich fan club magazine, Paul sounded like there was more to the story than perhaps there was:

I went to Portugal on holiday and returned to the hotel one night slightly the worse for a few drinks. There was a band playing and I ended up on the drums. The hotel was called Penina, I made up a song with that name, someone made enquiries about it and I gave it to them. And, no, I shouldn’t think I’d ever record it myself!

The Summer 1995 issue of the same magazine likewise listed “Penina” among the songs Paul gave away, chronologically listed between bona-fide hits “Goodbye” (Mary Hopkin) and “Come and Get It” (Badfinger), showing a breathtaking contrast of song quality with his Portuguese throwaway.

To this day, Paul still hasn’t recorded “Penina,” but the song lives on. Mendes re-recorded it for his latest LP, which came out in April 2018.

And while “Suzy Parker” lives on only through bootlegs and YouTube clips, having become the actual footnote in Beatles lore, you can see the 71-year-old Mendes perform “Penina” live in concert in Portugal this December, nearly 50 years to the day Paul wrote the song a few hours away at the Penina Hotel and Golf Resort.

5 Comments

Filed under Day by day