Tag Archives: John Lennon

Jan. 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.

1 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.

2 Comments

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: 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: Another kind of gig

What on earth is “Suzy Parker?”

Red is the color that my baby wore: Suzy Parker, 1969

The person by that name was a seminal American supermodel and actress who on January 9, 1969 was aged 36.

“Suzy Parker” — as performed by the Beatles — requires multiple assumptions to set a complete chronology of the song’s history. What is established, however, is that the only performance made available over the last half-century is one from January 9, 1969.

The song sprung directly out of the day’s lone, solid performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” (discussed a post ago), with John introducing the song in a deliberate, low-key mumble.

“I’d like to change the tempo now a little and move over to another kind of gig, and it’s called ‘Suzy’s Parlour.’”

And with that, John plucked out the opening chords ripped straight from the Chuck Berry playbook. Paul repeated the title as John began to sing in his most shrill voice. This is my best stab at transcribing the lyrics — I listened on headphones multiple times, slowed the song down, the works — but let’s just say they’re pretty fluid and inconsistent, as is John’s wont:

C’mon, Suzy Parker, everybody’s welcome to come
I said come over, Suzy Parker, everybody’s welcome to come
Get to fixing Suzy Parker, everybody gets well done

I said, c’mon, Suzy Parker, everybody’s welcome to come
I said, c’mon, Suzy Parker, everybody’s welcome to come
When you come to Suzy’s parlour, everybody gets well done

After every line, Paul and George supplied “c’mon, Suzy Parker” backup vocals — or something along those lines — and this is the place to note Paul clearly sang “Parker” not “parlour” most of the time. Their delivery is vaguely reminiscent to the “shoo-bee-doo-wop” backup vocals they provide in “Revolution 1.” After the first two verses, we get a machine-gun-style “rat-tat-tat” backup vocal, intensely delivered by Paul and George.

The verses continued, as John did John things, tweaking the lyrics on the fly.

C’mon, Suzy Parker, everybody’s welcome to come
Yeah, c’mon, Suzy parlour, everybody’s welcome to come
When you get to Suzy’s parlour, everybody gets well done

Another repeat of the rat-tat-tats refrain, and that was it, just shy of two minutes. John recapped the lyrics spoken-word, while George and Paul repeated the rat-tat-tats and a little of the instrumentation. Everything is over and done in about two minutes, a delicious respite unleashed before the group heads right into “I’ve Got a Feeling.”

You can — and should — see about half of the performance in the Let It Be film, starting about 19 minutes in. There it’s introduced by John asking, desperately, “Does anybody have a fast one?” on the heels of a lackluster take of “Dig a Pony” from January 7. Movie magic merges these two moments.

So back to the opening question: What on earth is “Suzy Parker”?

It’s a great song! Funny, upbeat, tight. And a little raunchy, even, representing a section of Suzy Parker’s home as a den of iniquity where everybody’s not only welcome to come but they get well done, too. It’s not remotely as provocative as Prince’s ode to a supermodel of his era decades later, but this was enjoyably suggestive nonetheless.

“Suzy Parker,” too, is the flip side of the sessions’ grim reputation, four guys truly enjoying playing music together. Take this and “One After 909,” and the Beatles could have propelled the Get Back experience into a different, retro (and excellent) space.

Yet as spontaneous as was the group’s mood, it feels very difficult to consider this song a one-off, impromptu jam. It’s simply too tight, too good, even if it is boilerplate John Lennon 12-bar blues.

So when and where does the song really come from, and why her? Your Beatles fan fiction is as good as mine.  Parker’s successful modeling career had peaked a decade earlier, and she was nearing her final acting role, so while the members of the band certainly had long memories, she wouldn’t have necessarily been on the tips of their tongues. With plenty of other songs featuring variants of the heroine’s first name across more than a decade, there’s no smoking gun that would place “Suzy Parker” in any particular period in Beatles history if there’s a consideration it was directly inspired by another lyrical Suzy, Suzie or Susie. It could have been influenced by one, none or all of these:

But “Suzy Parker” is not necessarily from January 1969 either. The Beatles are in sync to a degree that seems to belie a completely ad-libbed performance, when we have much sloppier performances of other ad-libbed and established songs from these sessions for comparison. Even the well-rehearsed songs are sloppier. While the Nagra tapes constantly rolled during these sessions, and this specific performance of “Suzy Parker” the only one recorded, there remains non-zero odds the song existed in some form prior.

We can, at least, be assured that it’s not a cover, and it’s not formally titled “Suzy’s Parlour,” either, despite that being the name introduced by John, repeated by Paul and the primary lyric of the the song.

Nobody involved seemingly has ever spoken about “Suzy Parker” in an interview, so most of what people know about it is based solely on years of speculation. But at least one piece of paperwork helps clear up some of the discrepancy.

It’s only a Northern Song: “Suzy Parker” listed among John & Paul’s solo efforts at the U.S. Copyright Office.

Even though the song has never appeared on a sanctioned Beatles album or single — I found its absence on Anthology 3 conspicuous — it was an official Beatles release having turned up in the Let It Be film. Therefore, the song had to have its papers. First copyrighted in 1971,  the song in question is indeed titled “Suzy Parker,” a rare (but not unprecedented) Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey original. Nowadays Northern Songs’ catalog falls under the ownership of Sony/ATV, where the song is registered as “Suzy Parker” — with the defined alternate title of “Suzy’s Parlour” (search the title here, or check this spreadsheet download for the listing).

Should the song be called “Suzy Parker” or “Suzy’s Parlour”? Probably the latter, but it actually doesn’t matter. It is what it is, and formally the song is “Suzy Parker.” And despite an endless library of film, tape and interviews of the band existing for the entirety of their careers, the Beatles’ career still holds lovely pockets of mystery like this song.

6 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Jokes in between

Let’s run through the ones we know and then learn the [new] one.

This is our format.

Paul McCartney was right. There was a format. At least there was a framework developing as the Beatles rehearsed in their second week at Twickenham.

As covered in the last post, George Harrison would have to wait a few hours for attention to return to his new “For You Blue.” Instead, with the full band ready to go nearly 90 minutes into the January 9, 1969, Nagra tapes, the Beatles tackled “Two of Us” for the fifth time in six days, initiating a sequence in which the group returned to some of the finished, core songs they’d have for their live show. Why, it was their format!

This stretch also clearly exposed the side of the Beatles that everyone (else) usually cites when describing the Get Back sessions. While I’m quick to argue January 1969 at Twickenham was not of itself the downfall of the band as it was filled with harmonious, joyous and highly fruitful moments to match the uglier, fractious component of the sessions, these guys could get pretty petulant and didn’t hide it with the tapes rolling.

A quick, carefree one-off into the song the day before, this day’s “Two of Us” rehearsal stretched about a half-hour, and quite unlike the Rocky and the Rubbers’ version, Paul insisted on serious refinement.

As loose as their run-through was early on the 8th was exactly how tense things emerged on the 9th, with consistent, stuttered efforts to get through a full song.

From the top, the group can’t find the proper pacing of “Two of Us,” with Paul pushing the others to pick it up. “Keep them all quiet, keep your instruments down so we can sort of hear what’s going on.”

They had another go at the song, and “it’s still pathetic,” in Paul’s words. He suggested the issues went beyond just the song’s speed.

As Paul nitpicked what arrangement the song needed entering the bridge, John argued, “We never got into this [part] yet,” defending himself and the others as Paul criticized the group for not knowing what’s in his head.

A fiery example of the strain came during a “Two of Us” take in which Paul barked at John, who wasn’t in perfect rehearsal position, to “get on the mic.”  John, certainly responding to the tone more than the instruction itself snapped back.

“You don’t have to bitch about it, we’ll never get through it.”

The band immediately went into another take, and you can hear John loud and clear — but he came in early. You can hear Paul’s displeasure when he comes in himself at the right time. Still, they championed on.

(This sequence was in the Let It Be film, and led immediately to the “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play” sequence from three days earlier.

A dark moment, for sure, but as usual for these guys, they were able to compartmentalize and still harmonize figuratively and literally. Picking apart “Two of Us” to improve the various “bits” and now focusing on the middle eight, Paul started thinking out loud.

“The two things I think of are both corny, but something better are oohs  … or [a staccato “dit-dit-dit”]”

Never mind that the “oohs” are actually “aahs” when Paul, John and George instantly launch into a demonstration of the vocals, which are proposed to appear supporting the “you and I have memories” lead. This is the Beatles magic, immediate and spontaneous and completely normal, even when it comes a few minutes after one member complains about the other one’s bitchiness. The subsequent stab at the staccato vocalization came off a bit sloppier but still likable.

This below clip starts out with both of these attempts in sequence. After the first 30 seconds, though, is unrelated audio

Concerned the backup line would sound “too thin,” George proposed, “Maybe we get a few Raelettes,” marking yet another time the group evoked Ray Charles’ backup singers. “Get three girls” with some phasing on the mics.

John’s cheeky reply was to bring in three boys instead, and George named the Dallas Boys, Britian’s first boy band (by ’69 they were into their 30s).

While they never landed the Raelettes, the Beatles would soon enlist the man seated before them, Billy Preston. (Photo from late 1968).

Ultimately, Paul asked the others to “just think of something, then” for the middle eight, and off they went into another take, this one featuring the lovely “aahs.”  The song may not have dramatically improved, but the mood had over the last 25 or so minutes on the tapes.

But Paul still had something to complain about, turning his attention to a frequent (and legitimate) punching bag for the band, the equipment setup at Twickenham. If we think the tapes sound diluted, just imagine how substandard the quality must have been for the musicians on the sound stage. With the proposed show nearing — and despite some pretty ambitious ideas, uh, floated less than 24 hours earlier — improved sound needed to be addressed along with other facets of a finalized live performance.

“Just so that we can all hear, so it sounds really great here,” Paul said. “So that our voices are just as loud as they need to be. ‘Cause then we’ll be able to hear what’s wrong.”

What’s more …

“Everything we’re going to actually do like that, we could get into now. Just where the amps are going to be, and where we stand. It is a bit silly to be rehearsing sitting, facing this way, when we’re actually to be playing standing, facing that way.”

And here’s where we return to a disagreement among the principals, but with a far different result than earlier.

John: I thought we’d get into that when we do a few more.

George: We still have dance steps to learn.

Paul: And the jokes in between.

The esprit de corps resumed as the group advanced to a singular take of “Don’t Let Me Down.” There was no nibbling, no exhausting search for a missing “bit,” and even when there was a screw-up on the lyric, they powered on and completed the song in a tidy 3:10.

Far less concise, and clocking in at nearly 25 minutes of torturous micromanagement, was a brutal run of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” After a perfectly adequate (for this point in the sessions) initial run-through, Paul immediately identified just one specific spot for improvement — the same part of the song that had bedeviled the group on multiple occasions, and the same point that the struggled with in several songs —  “The only bit is the break. Still not sort of dramatic enough.”

This tense sequence was up there among the least listenable parts of the entire month’s worth of tapes. Paul offered several variants on how he wants the guitar part to sound, right after his line, “All that I’ve been looking for is somebody who looks like you!”

Issues:

  • “All the notes are clipped.”
  • “There shouldn’t be any recognizable jumps.”
  • “The notes shouldn’t ring on.”
  • “At the moment, it’s like a riff.”

Solutions:

  • “[The notes should be] just like falling, falling.”
  • “Try to sort of sing it.”
  • “It’s got to be like pain.”
  • “Certainly do anything like it’s crying.”

It’s got to be like pain. What an instruction!

Paul desperately and relentlessly attempted to communicate how he wanted the part to sound — gesticulating, vocalizing, playing it on the bass — but John simply couldn’t or wouldn’t accurately nail the brief solo.

In another editing trick that showed up in the Let it Be film, John did, in fact, nail it. That’s because the film shows the January 8 “Rocky and the Rubbers” take of the song (where Paul shouts a celebratory “good evening!” after the part is played), and spliced it on both ends of a brief portion of this sequence from January 9.

Ultimately, John hit the part satisfactorily enough for the Paul to continue the group through their core set. The mood rose again for another jubilant effort of “One After 909,” although we don’t get a complete grasp of the rehearsal due to the tape cutting in and out. We can pretty safely assume, though, that like “Don’t Let Me Down,” the band tore through a single take.

As John moved over to the piano, the Beatles practiced their stage patter, in hilariously fake sincere voices.

Paul: “Certainly, it’s a great occasion for us.”

John: “First chance we’ve had to play for you dummies for a long time.”

The playful attitude continued as Paul dabbled in a bit of “Norwegian Wood” on bass, soon to be joined briefly by Ringo on drums and George on guitar and vocals before they immediately launched into, as George called it, “the one about the window.”

It was a straightforward, strong take of “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” although we don’t hear the whole thing on the tapes.  Far less straightforward, but wholly enjoyable was a string of takes broken up by tape cuts, including one with John taking the lead vocal with a heavy Cockney accent.

By this point, the mood was entirely loose. The song was given a slow ballad treatment, featuring a lyric referencing the famed celebrity female impersonator Danny La Rue.  Paul completed one take by answering the phone: “Hello, this is Tuesday speaking. Is that Paul? I’d like to have a word with you.”

Now, five minutes past 1 p.m., the group broke for lunch. Paul offered a brief impression of Elvis — who someone mentioned turned 34 the day earlier.

Only a few hours into a temperamental roller-coaster of a day, John replied to the rest of the 20-somethings in the group, “We all seem to be catching up to him.”

6 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 8: Syndicate any boat

The TV show’s title and tagline could have written itself:

“The Beatles are … ADRIFT.”

Picture yourself in a boat: The Beatles aboard the Fritz Otto Maria Anna, in the River Thames, on April 9, 1969.

It’s a simplistically obvious metaphor, and a literal description of what the group was seriously considering in the waning moments of their January, 8, 1969, session at Twickenham. If the TV show in production was to be episodic, this sequence would have provided a true cliffhanger.

Ringo Starr, codename “Russia,” wasn’t unwilling to drop his automatic veto, and it was John Lennon spearheading the effort withing the group, resurfacing as the group’s leader after so many years, who worked the sell on the drummer, along with Paul McCartney.

“Just give me one reason to stay here,” John asked.

“For the people,” Ringo answered with complete sincerity.

“All right, we’ll take ‘em with us,” John replied.

Paul McCartney clarified the pitch for a Winter 1969 rock cruise.

Look, we were going to give tickets away at this door here and say the first thousand people who come from Britian — British, white people (said to laughter as Paul was clearly joking; don’t write his reps). No, it’s going to be the first thousand that got here. We give them out, those tickets, but they include a boat ride, as well.

“We take them with us, and that’s the show,” Michael Lindsay-Hogg said.

France — aka George Harrison — took a more skeptical view of the potential naval movements than Russia and voiced several specific concerns with the plan:

  • Traveling with fans: “We’re stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks. At least you can go home from here, you can get away from it all. … It’d have be a bloody big boat, it’ll have to be bigger than the Royal Iris.”
  • Technical logistics: ” It’s just impracticable to lug all those people there and get all that equipment. … Of course it’s our problem.”
  • Cost:  “I think the idea of a boat is completely insane. It’s very expensive and insane.”

While at apparent odds, all the Beatles were deeply engaged in the discussion, and Michael took a straw poll for this proposal. “If we can get the audience and the boat, who votes to go?”

One hand — undoubtedly John’s — shot up immediately. George, despite his vocal objections, would still grudgingly go along with a trip if everyone else was joining. “I just want to get it over with, you know?”

John piloting the ship (in 1975)

It was all coming together for Michael. The boat trip compromise to include a British audience was a bonus for him, an easy way to compile captivating footage for his documentary, another unusual setting — the Beatles not just mingling with fans, but doing it as they sail along the coasts of Western Europe and Northern Africa.  It all would culminate with his deep wish to bring the group to the Sabratha amphitheater: the world’s greatest band making its stage comeback at a spectacular, unique venue.

“See, it’s like having the most fantastic set on earth, but we haven’t made a set, you know? It’s still simplicity itself,” John said.

Ringo still wasn’t sure.

Ringo: But how many’s going to be looking at the set besides us and [Michael]? … [Viewers] want to see what’s on, not what’s around.

John: We’re bound to get something from it.

Ringo: A nice time, get a bit of sun.

Michael: After you’ve had your nine or ten closeups each, we’ve got to have something else to shoot about.

John: It’ll be like being on the roof in India, only we’ll be fully equipped.

The roofs in India were where, not coincidentally, John was at his most prolific in this latter phase of Beatles history.

Even though, as Michael said, “the vibes are very good at the moment,” there was enough obvious dissent in the room to lead John to say that the group will mull it over that night. “We all could say yes now, and somebody could decide no tomorrow.”

Paul and Heather at sea, 1969. (Photo by Linda McCartney)

As they wrapped up, a final, spirited discussion — as animated as the room has been with no fewer than six people all talking at once (the four Beatles, plus Michael and Apple Films head Denis O’Dell) — emerged over the cost of the boat trip, Ringo and George most concerned.

“We should be able to get the boat for nothing,” John said. “We should be able to get the boat for the publicity they get from it.”  Denis replied to Ringo’s skepticism that he could get a ship “in three hours on the phone.”

John confirmed Denis’ skills, relaying how the producer was able to secure a vessel for How I Won the War. “It was the American Navy making an antiwar film.”

Really, it was all falling into place.

January 8, 1969, was the band’s sixth day back to work at Twickenham, and while most of their new songs were still a work-in-progress, the was actual progress.  One day earlier, George was on the brink of leaving the group. Now, while he was bothered to do so, he was still seemingly willing to get on a boat with the group — and 1,000 fans he wanted little to do with — to go to Africa for a concert he didn’t really want to play.  Ringo was dead-set against going, and now he was willing to bend. Paul was always ready “for an adventure” and as the group’s de facto musical director, he was shaping the material to have ready for the production. As for John, he wasn’t just finally involved — during the final conversation, you heard him speak on the tapes, not Yoko Ono — but he was the group’s leader again.

Days of discussion of where and how to stage the concert had been a distraction from the music-making process, which needed to continue. They were almost ready for a decision.

“Sleep on it then,” said Paul. “I am.”

One question remained as the working day ended: Would the great democracy that was the Beatles agree to this plan for a live show and have a goal they could rehearse toward, or would January 9, 1969, be just another day?

7 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 8: The Four Powers

In a time of global crisis — isn’t it always, though? — it was the world’s greatest legislative body. OK, maybe the Beatles were the world’s greatest band that also tried to behave like a legislative body, and late in the day on January 8, 1969, it was nearing time for a decisive vote on a lingering issue: Where would the Beatles play their next — and presumably last — concert?

You know his name (look up the nation)

From the band’s outset to its imminent end, the Beatles prided themselves on what they called democracy, but it was really complete consensus. “We had a democratic thing going between us, particularly by 1962,” George Harrison told the high court in 1997 amid a lawsuit to stop the release of a Beatles recording from one of their residencies in Hamburg. “Everybody in the band had to agree with everything that was done.”

Unanimity isn’t necessary to the democratic model, but this model United Nations was extraordinary by nature of its four voting members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The two serious veto threats earned code names from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg — Russia (Ringo) and France (George, so named “because he smoked some garlic once,” per Paul).

Continuing his earlier conversation with Ringo, and desperate to sell a show overseas, Michael laid out the situation as he saw it in hopes of chipping through the Iron Curtain.

The way it stacks up is, John is happy to go. … Paul is, I gather, in the middle, tending toward either side … and George is swinging more your way. So there’s quite a tough battle. The problem was we couldn’t talk about it because of Russia. And it’s the four powers. And if Russia says no, then the conversation is obviously in the bag and we can’t do anything with it. And I think if we now can talk about it, we may still discard it … or we may come up with something better.

In retrospect, the drama of the group’s incapability of finding agreement on a concert location, despite the suggestion of several intriguing venues, would have made for a captivating documentary for Michael. It would have given a narrative the Let It Be film lacked. But after less than a week of sessions, the director saw things differently.

“My documentary is running out of gas,” Michael admitted to John. “If we were to vote tomorrow, it’s not running out of gas.”

Fine-tuning the group’s intentions would do more than make for better television. “It might make it better again, whatever the wound is,” Michael told John moments earlier.

What octane do documentaries use? (Photo of the Beatles at Weston-super-Mare by Dezo Hoffman, 1963)

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” John replied.

And here you thought John didn’t care about the band anymore. The Beatles were a wounded group before the Get Back sessions started, and salt would soon be added when George quit in two days’ time. But the Beatles were still worth saving in January 1969, even if John himself would call it quits well before the calendar year was out.

The day’s musical session was complete, Paul having walked the group through “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be.” For these final 15 or so minutes on the tapes, all four Beatles are engaged, animated and opinionated concurrently to a degree yet unheard to this point on the Nagra reels.

All the principals immersed, Denis O’Dell makes the sell on Michael’s repeated preferred overseas adventure.

“I really think we could go and shoot a day sequence, a night sequence, a torch-light sequence, out there the sea, desert, in four days. Make it comfortable for everybody.”

Paul’s skepticism remained. But he was willing to keep options open and the live concert plans … uh, afloat.

My major objections to that: Traveling, one. Setting up and everything — I’m sure we can do that. Then, there’s that thing, which may not seem much, but we’re doing a live show, and we’re doing it in Arabia (laughter), and everyone’s waiting to see the lads rocking again. So, like, I’ll tell you what then, I’ll come in with it as long as you can get a couple of boats, the QE2. And then give away the tickets here, as you would have done, but the ticket includes a boat journey as well.

The composition of the audience was a sticking point, especially for Ringo, and there’s something virtuous to be said for the lads’ loyalty and desire to be rocking again before an audience that was with them from the start.

“We’ve got to get the right audience for Russia,” Michael said. “If we can get the right audience over there, which we can get over there.”

George wasn’t easily swayed. “What is the point of doing it abroad… apart from getting a great holiday? I’d much rather do it and then go away.”

Reminding the band of Twickenham’s relatively pedestrian features, Denis replied, presumably waving his hand at the scene around him, “To get away from that, that’s really the answer.”

“It’s ‘Around the Beatles ‘69′,” John acknowledged after a brief exchange about potential set possibilities on the Twickenham stage.

Paul, having had enough at the end of a long day, aggressively presented a compromise.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll offer you. If we’re going away, and we hire a boat to take the audience with you, we’ll do a bloody show on the boat, and then we’ll do a show when we get there, in the moonlight. … Final dress rehearsals on the boat.”

History never stopped chasing the Beatles, and sometimes it caught up to them. They didn’t want to repeat a past accomplishment, whether it was “Around The Beatles” or a stadium show. But Paul’s suggestion would have done just that: Bringing along a select audience to a performance at sea would combine a pair of episodes from the other side of their career.

Feb. 20, 1962, just a month after Brian Epstein formally signed on to manage them, the Beatles — that’s still John, Paul, George and Pete, at this point — performed an important show at Floral Hall in Southport. From Mark Lewisohn’s biblical epic Tune-In:

[Epstein’s] principal involvement in the Floral Hall night was two-fold: to help sell the 1200 tickets and to book the talent that would provide continuous dancing for four hours — five groups headed by POLYDOR RECORDING STARS, THE BEATLES. He circulated typed leaflets among Beatles fans and on the record counters at all three Nems shops, announcing affordable coach trips: fans could pay 8s, 6d for return transportation, admission to the hall and, afterwards, the chance to mingle with the musicians and get their autographs. These special all-in tickets were sold only in the Whitechapel shop, outside which the chartered buses would leave. The Beatles were taking a Liverpool audience with them for a night out up the coast.

Emphasis mine.

Instead of towing British passengers across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Beatles brought their fans from their Cavern Club base in Liverpool about 20 miles up the A565.

That was by bus. Six months before the Floral Hall show, the Beatles made the first of four appearances on the Riverboat Shuffle, a concert series on the MV Royal Iris, a ferry cruising in the River Mersey.

For Paul — who would record parts of Wings’ London Town on a boat in the Virgin Islands in May 1977 — the Royal Iris performances made enough of a lasting impact that he referenced them decades later on his 2007 LP Memory Almost Full:

The journey wasn’t as important to Michael as the destination: the Roman amphitheater in Sabratha, Libya.

“I don’t think anything is going to beat a perfect acoustic place, by the water, out of doors, a perfect theater, with perfect acoustics,” he said.

John was on board. “Just singing a number, sunset and the dawn and all that. Gentle, and the moon, and all that for the songs, you know.”

“I think we’re going to do rock and roll at dawn or at night, and we can have the change of day over something like this,” Michael replied. “Because I’m sure we can do the rock and roll there if we get the right audience.”

All-important consensus was building between the two most powerful members of the band, and it was more than wanderlust and closer to finding a way to heal that wound — do something different, but still be together as The Beatles.

“Last year, when we were doing the album, like you said, we suddenly said we don’t need to do it here, in EMI in London,” Paul said. You can listen along to this particular sequence on the “Fly on the Wall” bonus CD packed with Let It Be … Naked.

John excitedly picked up the argument.

“Every time we’ve done an album, we’ve said, ‘Why are we stuck in EMI, we could be doing it in L.A.! We could be in France! And every time we do it, and here we are again, building another bloody castle around us, and this time we [should] do it there. And not only would we be doing it, physically making the album there, but it takes [off] all that weight of, ‘Where’s the gimmick, what is it?’ God’s the gimmick. And the only problem we’ve got now is an audience, you know.”

For a moment, at least, Paul’s skepticism vanished.

“It makes it kind of an adventure, doesn’t it?”

4 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 8: Nothing is real

Far from chaotic, the Get Back sessions, if anything, could be defined by its routines. Paul arrived early to play piano, and then pretty much ran the rehearsals. George’s songs — whether written overnight or brought back for another day — were a slog for everyone else. John didn’t have much new to offer, while Ringo did Ringo things like participate in conversations and keep the beat. Turn the page to the next day on the calendar, and do it all again.

Beyond music, the daily pattern underlying the scene centered around discussion of the live concert the Beatles were trying to put together. At once a footnote to the songs, the show was simultaneously the purpose of these January sessions and thus ostensibly what mattered most. The push and pull between director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s wanderlust and the group’s default stance — to stay put — was a constant. And the more they couldn’t settle on a British venue, the closer they collectively moved toward simply staying in the very room where they were rehearsing and ruminating.

January 8, 1969, then, was no different than so many other days the Beatles spent at Twickenham the first half of the month. Discussion about the concert surfaced late in the work day, concurrent with Paul introducing the unfinished “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” to the rest of the band for the first time, and with their initial attempts at a full-band arrangement.

Yet now, to stage the “honest” sound they sought to achieve these sessions, the Beatles began to consider an ersatz solution. Rock and roll begets rocks, or something imitating it, at least.

Denis O’Dell (left) with Ringo at The Magic Christian shoot. Photo from O’Dell’s book, At The Apple’s Core.

“If we try to cover all this (Twickenham’s sound stage) and build caverns and caves, it’s nice, you see,” said Denis O’Dell, the head of Apple Films.

Why perform at the Cavern in Liverpool for the nearly 300th time, when you can simply craft your own cavern indoors? (Please don’t answer that.)

Denis had been in the film industry since before the Beatles were born, and his association with the group began in 1964, when he was associate producer on the A Hard Days Night film. It was the start of a mutually beneficial partnership to this point, which included How I Won the War (associate producer and John starred), Magical Mystery Tour (producer) and led to his appointment as an Apple executive.

Of course, you already know his name (but have to look up his number) from his time at Slaggers, and do note he is NOT related to Miss Chris O’Dell.

Denis had appeared sporadically on the tapes to this point, and here it dovetailed with one of the first times John seemed even marginally interested in what was going on with the live show.

“Then we could do what we’d like with a backing,” Denis told John. “Go black, or stark or something. Then we could control all our lights from a panel, and we could have all colors you’d like.”

“Yes. And they’ll be able to see us through everything.”

John invoked sets used by Stanley Kubrick, Denis’ boss on Dr. Strangelove (that film was the source of the footage used during the “Flying” sequence in Magical Mystery Tour), and the man floated to direct a version of Lord of the Rings starring the Beatles. An extensive recap of that aborted episode in Beatles history is discussed at length in Denis’ 2003 fine autobiography of his Beatles years, At The Apple’s Core.

The conversation would continue, with Denis asking someone to fetch George Djurkovic, art director of The Magic Christian, from the film’s set elsewhere at Twickenham to provide added insight. But while Paul continues to play “The Long and Winding Road” in the background the conversation on the tapes meandered to a new duo: Ringo — one of the stars of The Magic Christian — and Michael. While Denis and John spoke as if the live show was to be held at the studio, Michael continued negotiations on taking the show on the road with Ringo. They were the leaders of the rival factions: Stay-put Starr vs. the whole Hogg.

“If I do go, I think it’s better just to go for four or five days,” Ringo said, showing newfound flexibility. “We don’t need to go to rehearse.”

Ringo was willing to bend and travel, but there’s a catch: “I’d like to do it to a British audience.”

It’s a catch, but one Michael is willing to receive. “Can we all talk about it? Will you take the veto off if you can be convinced we can get an audience?” Michael asked.

A Roman amphitheater wasn’t artificial, but to Ringo, the whole reason to perform overseas was contrived. The only reason to travel was the “helicopter shot, you’ll see the sea, the theater. And that is, for one, two minutes, say, that shot isn’t worth me going down there when I really prefer to do it here.”

Two and a half months after Ringo suggested the Beatles perform before there for a “British audience,” John and Yoko would be married in Gibraltar (near Spain).

“I see us doing a good show here [at Twickenham], because it’s you [the Beatles],” Michael said, again conceding this could be the last TV program the band will ever do.

Speaking quickly, Michael continued:  “Everything you do has got to be good. All your albums are good. …. It’s not only you as the band, it’s not only them as songwriters, it’s the four of you.

“It’s got to be the best.”

Of course they’re the best. Like Ringo doesn’t know that?

“Every time we do anything it’s going to be the best,” Ringo replied. “Can’t we just do something straight?”

And back to Twickenham, and staying precisely put.

“At the moment, that scaffolding set and the tubular thing, it is kind of like four years ago,” Michael said. “And there’s nothing wrong with four years ago. … We’re all 28 now, or whatever we are. The audience isn’t the same, life isn’t the same.”

For the record, John, Ringo and Michael were all 28, Paul was 26 and George a wee 25. But his point remained legitimate. This wasn’t 1965 anymore.

“This place, it could be rock and roll, ” Michael began.

“It could be rock and roll in Tahiti or wherever you want to put us. What’s it called? (laughing)”

Michael’s not even sure himself. “It’s either Tunisia or Tripoli.”

Ringo asks about a British possession likewise on the Mediterranean — “What about Gibraltar?” — before turning his attention back to the room he was in and the music, ignored during the conversation.

How’s this for an idea of stripping a show down?

“See, Ringo said, “I’d watch an hour of just [Paul] playing the piano.”

5 Comments

Filed under Day by day