Tag Archives: John Lennon

TMBP Extra: RIP Chuck Berry

From Forthin Road’s front room to their final fracture, the Beatles were openly ripping off Chuck Berry, imitating and flattering the late, great rock and roll patriarch with complete sincerity.

The bass line to “I Saw Her Standing There,” for instance, is the bass line to Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.” 

Here’s Paul McCartney, getting the message through in Beat Instrumental, via Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now:

I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me.

This you can believe: The massive influence of Charles Edward Anderson Berry — who left the material world on Saturday at 90 — on the Beatles is quite impossible to minimize. The Beatles’ growth pattern wouldn’t have been the same if there was no Buddy Holly or Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins, Lonnie Donegan or Slim Whitman, Jim McCartney or Julia Lennon. But the mark Chuck Berry left was unique.

You’ve heard this quote for sure, if not before this weekend, then certainly since:

If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.”

That was John Lennon in 1972, spoken in Berry’s presence on the Mike Douglas show. John’s adoration took many forms in the more than decade prior to that.  Here’s Paul, as quoted in the Anthology book:

We’d go up to John’s bedroom with his little record player and listen to Chuck Berry records, trying to learn them.

And there was plenty of reason to learn them. The sheer velocity of the music was one. John explained the other in a 1972 interview, relayed in Anthology:

In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics. When I hear rock, good rock, of the calibre of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and I have no other interest in life. The world could be ending if rock ‘n’ roll is playing.

As the Quarrymen moved things up a trifle further in becoming Beatles, their love of Berry’s music was written all over their performances, with more than a dozen of his songs covered live over their touring career (you can find many of those songs as performed by the Beatles on their two Live at the BBC compilations, plus the Bootleg Recordings 1963 release).

“Memphis, Tennessee” made the cut as one of the songs for their failed audition for Decca in 1962.

Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles blessed record buyers with those tracks on wax and also live from the stage.  The former was performed right up until their last live show in 1966, when it was the concert opener, while the latter made it as late as into their 1965 tours.

Two and a half years after that last concert — in the timeline we’re concerning ourselves with here on this blog, January 1969 — the Beatles turned to Berry’s music over and over again, if not for inspiration then at the least out of habit and comfort. For John, Paul and George, it meant filling moments amid the tension and tedium by jamming into a impromptu but completely sincere rehashes of “School Days” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Thirty Days” or “I’m Talking About You” or .. or … or …

Even when they were fooling around with their own “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at Twickenham, it was just another reminder of Berry’s influence by way of “Back in the U.S.A.”

That the Beatles would play a song by Berry wasn’t in and of itself that telling, but their universal knowledge and comfort in playing his songs, said a lot.

Months later, in the Beatles’ waning days as a unit, Berry’s inspiration struck Lennon very directly in “Come Together.”  John dismissed the claim that “You Can’t Catch Me” — a song he said he hadn’t heard in a decade, yet one that John belted out a few lines from in a jam the final week of January 1969 — sparked the Abbey Road opener.

(Someday we’ll have to talk about how an early version of “Come Together” resembled the Kinks’ “Drivin'” off  Arthur. But that’s for another blog.)

Paul, who had no shame admitting he integrated Berry’s work into his own, felt pretty certain John did the same. As quoted in Anthology:

John came in with an up-tempo song that sounded exactly like Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ even down to the ‘flat-top’ lyric. I said, ‘Lets slow it down with a swampy bass-sand-drums vibe.’ I came up with a bass line and it flowed from there. Great record.”

He’s right, it is a great record.

Turns out, they could catch John, and as part of an eventual settlement, John had a chance to re-make “You Can’t Catch Me” (as well as a few other songs owned by the prosecution) for his 1975 Rock ‘N’ Roll LP (another great record).

John’s love of that original era of rock and roll, which made him want to do it himself, gave his life and career meaning and shone on that record, and really whenever he had the opportunity to play it. The genuine glee felt by John, when he got to share the stage with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972 is palpable. If you haven’t watched it before, you should, both the performances as well as the interview segment.

John recalled that day during an interview/DJ session with Dennis Elsas on WNEW, September 24, 1974:

Because although I was there with Chuck Berry, and I’d been sitting backstage with him, I met him a few times over the years, I still have that feeling, that when I was sixteen, those were the records I listened to [in] what we called “milk bars” in England, with a jukebox. And I could never quite see him as a human ’cause there was one of my idols, actually talking to me. … It’s sort of an effort to see, “Oh, yeah, it’s a human, but it is Chuck Berry, isn’t it?”

Like John Lennon, Chuck Berry was indeed human and thus mortal, and the master was able to enjoy 50 more years on this earth than his apprentice.   The Beatles were as innovative as any act as popular music has seen, but with Berry’s genius baked into the individual members’ DNA from youth, the group didn’t have to start from scratch. It wasn’t enough that the Beatles had a backbeat they couldn’t lose,  the lyrics mattered too.

“Ever since I was in my teens I was acquainted with the works of Chuck Berry, whom I consider one of the original rock and roll poets,” John Lennon said after the Beatles’ breakup.

Said in a deposition.

Said in a deposition in which he was being sued for ripping off Berry.

But this spoke more of the litigious universe that enveloped The Beatles in the early ‘70s than anything else — Berry didn’t sue John over lyrics in “Come Together,” it was the people who owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” And the solution was simple: just play some Chuck Berry music on another record.

Paul was never litigated for ripping off Berry, but he still went ahead and covered him decades later in 1999, cutting Brown-Eyed Handsome Man for the most excellent Run Devil Run.

On Berry’s death, Paul (and/or his people) tweeted his condolences, and it was his turn to rip off John.

Or maybe he didn’t rip off John at all. Berry was a poet, and Paul just didn’t have any better word to describe him.

Berry’s music will live on through his own recordings and as a direct line through the Beatles, too. And as long as we’ve got a dime, the music will never stop.

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Jan. 8: Look Around

It was 12 days until their scheduled concert, and on January 8, 1969, the Beatles were loose, relatively upbeat and open-minded, uncommon characterizations associated with Get Back/Let It Be sessions. Still, there wasn’t even consensus on what continent to stage the concert, much less what venue or what kind of audience would have tickets to the show.

What they lacked in plans and new material — Paul would insist the group would produce a few “rockers” soon — the Beatles at least had no shortage of live productions against which they could reflect and project.

Two classes of potential inspirations highlighted discussions to this point: recent live broadcasts by their peers (eg., Cream’s Farewell Concert, the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus) and the Beatles’ own history on stage and on the small screen. The audience was as much a consideration as the venue.

In the final hours of the day’s sessions, as the group continued to work on George’s new song “I Me Mine,” John and Yoko waltzed the room right into a continued deliberation of the staging of the imminent show.

“I think the thing to do is just put you all in a framework, which will be just, like, the audience and a stage,” pitched Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was tentatively willing to settle for a simple approach if his preferred idea — an overseas trip — was denied. “And by the time we get to the stage, we’d have a routine of numbers. We can find each number how they fit theatrically, like your dance for that one, like the song that you cry in and the song you do that brings tears to everybody’s eyes.”  Off mic, it was joked there’ll be the one song that’s done in the wrong key.

Twickenham's Stage 1. What a pretty palette!

Twickenham’s Stage 1. Simply gorgeous!

“Seriously,” the director continued. “Almost, we should end with ‘Good Night’ or whatever song is going to be like ‘Good Night’ this time. … The end of the show should be a tearjerker like ‘Hey Jude’ or like ‘Good Night’ or like something else.”

Two large signs promoting the show’s working title — “January 20, 1969” — would hang as a backdrop. “And it’s the 19th of February, 1982,” John injected for a laugh and commentary on the decision process’ plodding pace.

When Paul asked about the composition of the audience, Michael answered forcibly, “Human beings, and the first thousand who queue up.” John was more specific, positing “pastry cooks from Walton-on-Thames” would be in attendance.  (John’s joke was told nine weeks before the London suburb actually became a footnote in Beatles history: George and Pattie were fined for drug possession in Walton-on-Thames on March 12, 1969 — the same day Paul and Linda married.)

To snickers, Michael proposed voice overs for each song. E.g.: “Now Paul sings a song of true love.” 

The audience seated at Twickenham’s Stage 1 would sit in the round, either at three-quarters or fully encircling the group. “You could build this place great like that, all of it like a coliseum,” Paul said. “Four sides, then on the top of it all, your cameras, or a camera.”

“I still don’t think that’s our best idea, for the record and on tape,” Michael replied, resigned. “But I think if that’s what we’re going to do, it’ll be fine. Because I’ll make it fine, and you’ll make it fine.”

Coliseums real (Sabratha, top) and fabricated (Rediffusion's Wembley Park studio)

Coliseums real (Sabratha, top) and fabricated (“Around the Beatles” at Rediffusion’s Wembley Park studio)

The bar for the Beatles’ triumphant return to the stage re-established at “fine,” Michael conceded “torch-lit is for next time.”

While the coliseum-style arrangement recalled to Michael the currently shelved Sabratha, Paul was reminded of a moment in the group’s history from four and a half years earlier, when Beatlemania was at its peak.

“It’s a bit like ‘Around the Beatles.'”

“Ah, I was thinking about that,” Michael said. “That was a very good show. That’s why I think it should be kind of theatrical. … Also the Presley show they’ve just done, apparently, which has more of an ‘Around the Beatles’ audience.”

In reality, the live sequences in the ’68 Comeback Special — broadcast on NBC as, simply, “Elvis” — had more of a “Hey Jude” vibe than an “Around The Beatles” one; there was always a distance between fans and the band in “Around the Beatles,” while “Hey Jude” and the Comeback Special put the musicians within reach of the crowd, and the King several times interacted directly with the commoners. What “Around the Beatles” and the Comeback Special did share in their audiences was its enthusiasm-cum-mania.

The Comeback Special was being cited in discussions of the Beatles ’69 show, but it had no influence on the “Hey Jude” taping, or vice versa. Elvis filmed the concert portion in late June 1968 but those tapes weren’t broadcast until December. “Hey Jude” was filmed in early September 1968 and broadcast days later. The two paths never crossed.

compare

Way beyond compare: Around the Beatles (left), Elvis’ Comeback Special (center) and the “Hey Jude” promo film.

Elvis triumphantly rehabilitated his rock and roll credentials with his special; the Beatles didn’t need to do that. Yet …

“One of the things we’re up against,” Michael continued, “is all the past things you’ve done.”

Here we are with a reference to the past again. The Beatles did a lot. But surprisingly, although they were commonly featured across all facets of the media, they had very few their own television programs.

“There’s only about three of them,” Paul said, and John rattled off the list: “‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ ‘Around the Beatles’ and ‘Shea'” — the latter the landmark 1965 concert at the former New York Mets ballpark that was broadcast a year later on BBC and in 1967 in the U.S. on ABC. (It recently had a run in theaters in 2016, remastered and looking downright fab as the capper to the enjoyable “Eight Days a Week” documentary).

But “Magical Mystery Tour” was a scripted musical, and “Shea” was a concert film. So that means …

“‘Around the Beatles’ is our only ever TV show, isn’t it?” said Paul.

“And it was good,” Michael said, as Glyn Johns  — who had his first encounter with the group engineering a recording session for the music used in “Around The Beatles” (they lip-synched on the show)  — called the program “fantastic.”

After John broke into a few seconds of “Shout” — the finale of that show  — Paul complained to Michael about a theater-in-the-round setup, arguing it’s a step backward, replicating the set of “Around the Beatles.”

“I think with every idea we will have is bound to be …  any of us can pick out a negative side to it,” Michael countered.

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “But it should’t be too heavy negative a side.”

Michael asked the others for input, but John replied by playing Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” — a song Michael said, without explanation, “always frightens me” — and swapping in a variety of British locales for the original American cities. (John delivered a more serious reworking of the song six years later on his Rock ‘N’ Roll album).

Returning to “I Me Mine,” Michael remarked John and Yoko’s waltz is “kind of theatrical. And it’s also romantic, and it also fits the song.” Michael was also concerned about the complete bill and “what’s going to be our mind-blasting topper at the end, which I think ought to be a weep-weep, myself. A bang or a cry.”

Paul leaned toward the bang, saying, “we intend to write a couple of rockers.” That worked for Michael — at the beginning, at least. “I think you should open exciting and end with the audience in tears.”

John launches into another Chuck Berry number, this time “Almost Grown,” and is soon joined by Paul. Pleased, Michael said, “That’s what January 20, 1969″ is all about.”

The documentary portion of the production returns to Michael’s forefront when he asks his crew if this performance is being filmed — don’t forget, while the Nagra tapes recorded sound throughout the sessions, the group wasn’t consistently filmed.

Despite the illusion, it was time to get back to work, and Paul returned to setting the agenda.

“Are we all right on George’s number (‘I Me Mine’)? I’m not. Are you? Should we keep doing it a bit more?”

And so, for the time being, the Beatles ended negotiations regarding the live show. The metaphors don’t come much easier: The Beatles’ recounting and considering a return to a theater in the round left them talking in circles.

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Jan. 8: Two for the Road

Formal recording for Abbey Road wouldn’t come until months after the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions and not until the project was shelved along with its stable of new songs. It’s with the luxury of retrospection we can establish that the sessions served as a demo venue for Abbey Road, not a bad byproduct of the weeks in the studio.

To this point — the pre-lunch portion of the January 8 session — the Beatles had in one form or another performed six future Abbey Road tracks (”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling,” “Sun King,””She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight”) that were either contenders for the live show or simply unfinished bits for another day, if any.

“All Things Must Pass,” deplorably, didn’t make the cut on either Abbey Road or Let It Be. On this day, the final stabs at that Harrisong (which were the best ones to that point in these sessions, too) found John at piano, and it was there he re-introduced a future piece of the Abbey Road medley, “Mean Mr. Mustard.”

New to the Get Back sessions, “Mean Mr. Mustard” wasn’t at all new to the other Beatles, who had heard John’s demo for the song the previous May at Kinfauns. You, too, can hear it for yourself if you crack open your copy of Anthology 3 and pop in the first disc. Or just listen below!

Pretty earthy, but that’s Kinfauns for you. Like “All Things Must Pass” and others, the influence of the group’s February 1968 India trip stretched far past the subsequent White Album. Back in Twickenham, Mr. Mustard’s sister was still Shirley, and he’s yet to rediscover his roots with Polythene Pam. Her sordid story will come later. First, we can enjoy John performing “Mean Mr. Mustard” at the Get Back sesssions.

A bit more fleshed out with full instrumentation, the first 1969 take of “Mean Mr. Mustard” is roughly what it was nearly a year earlier, and not awfully far off from what it would become later on Abbey Road. It also stands as an alternate version of his work-in-progress “Madman,” which was a few days away from debut at these sessions. But the Madman’s story will come later, too.

Ultimately, John trashed the song, calling it, along with “Sun King” and “Polythene Pam,” merely “bits of crap that I wrote in India.”

But is one man’s trash another’s treasure?

All right, fine. Paul probably wasn’t inspired by this take of “Mean Mr. Mustard,” despite sharing bouncy piano chords, but it wouldn’t have been the first time a song drawn from these sessions would bizarrely resurface many years later.

Before breaking for a bite, the Beatles returned to another song that would later be separated only by one track on the Abbey Road Side 2 medley. The number had already had a few rehearsals over the last few days, but it finally was given its formal name on January 8.

Paul: I think it’s called “Bathroom Window” … But it’s funny. It doesn’t sound like a title. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”

Paul, Linda and Mary McCartney in the bathroom, 1969. The window is out of the frame.

Paul, Linda, Mary and Martha in the bathroom, 1969. The window is out of frame.

An earlier stab at a rehearsal never materialized, but after the Beatles spent about a half hour focusing on “All Things Must Pass” and John’s quick “Mean Mister Mustard” detour, the “Window” was reopened.  “Do you want to stay on that for ‘Bathroom Window?'” Paul asked John, who was still at the piano. He did, and it marked the third consecutive day the group spent time on the song.

Mentioned previously in this space, one delight of the Twickenham takes of “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” is the chance to hear Paul harmonizing with John on the song. Remember the Abbey Road version features Paul double-tracked.

Still, it’s hard to call these takes ultimately pleasurable. After some brief instruction, we hear three total takes of the song, with the first two dragging to the finish. The final take is a bit livelier. Unlike other McCartney compositions in the first week of the sessions, the song is indeed complete, though, with the same lyrics, melody and general instrumentation as we’d hear on Abbey Road, once that blessed day would come.

Now with “Mustard” on the table and the “Window” closed, the Beatles adjourned, quite appropriately, for lunch.

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Jan. 8: No blue moon in history

Having completed a spirited four-song run-through to jump-start the full band’s session at Twickenham on January 8, 1969, with the ancient “One After 909,” the Beatles managed to dig to the very bottom of the vault and the genesis of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership.

It’s a stretch to say the Beatles played “Too Bad About Sorrows” in the moments after they finished “One After 909,” itself a primeval composition, one John had said was his own, but Paul claimed to have shared credit writing. The spark of “909” propelled the group further down Memory Lane and over to 20 Forthlin Road. Dating back more than a decade to 1957, “Too Bad About Sorrows” has the distinction of being the very first Lennon/McCartney collaboration, per Paul.

We would sit down with a school notebook which I have to this day, an old tattered copybook, blue lines on white paper, and I would write down anything we came up with, starting at the top of the first page with ‘A Lennon-McCartney Original’. On the next page, ‘Another Lennon-McCartney Original’; all pages have got that. We saw ourselves as very much the next great songwriting team. Which funnily enough is what we became! We started off, I think, with a song called ‘Too Bad About Sorrows’. They all had very simple chord structures but we learned our craft that way.

Paul said much of the same here, on the South Bank Show in 1978.

Lasting about 15 seconds long, all we really hear on the January 8, 1969, performance is John singing the first line of the song — the title — over incoherent guitar and bass accompaniment, and two more garbled lines: “Too bad about love/There’ll be no tomorrow.” The performance itself is obviously forgettable as are so many of the brief stabs at songs these sessions, but this is particularly notable as it enabled the public — via decades of bootlegs and now YouTube clips like the one below sourced from those same bootlegs — to hear the very first Lennon/McCartney song.

The group would similarly perform a taste of “Too Bad About Sorrows” nearly two weeks later after the sessions shifted to Savile Row.

Straight out of the stab at “Too Bad About Sorrows,” John playfully delivered the line, “There’s no blue moon in history,” before letting out a giggle. Seconds later, he and Paul shared vocals on an impromptu version of “Just Fun,” the song John had just referenced and what is considered the second collaboration from the Lennon/McCartney team. In between, John delivered the line about “pot-smoking FBI members” that would eventually appear on the Let It Be album, and referenced in the last post.

Two days earlier, “Just Fun” had come up in conversation with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and producer Glyn Johns in a sequence that ended up in the Let It Be film as they discussed the revival of “One After 909.” Paul weakly sang the opening lines from “Just Fun” as part of a greater recounting of the early days of writing with John.

From the "Get Back" book

The Jan. 6 discussion of “Just Fun,” from the “Get Back” book.

This attempt wasn’t as comprehensive as the abbreviated January 6 version, lasting just a single line: “They said that our love was just fun.” Things broke down as George interrupted to go over new songs to be rehearsed. “Just Fun” wasn’t performed — at least at these sessions, and that we know of — by the Beatles again. Like “Too Bad About Sorrows,” this wasn’t any kind of groundbreaking performance, but it’s a slice of history that’s thankfully preserved.

Beyond the South Bank Show clip above, Paul has dusted off “Just Fun” elsewhere, including two verses’ worth of the song at a 2004 soundcheck in Zurich, of all dates and places. Quite oddly, John’s singing of the line “There’s no blue moon in history” shows up in the once indispensable 1982 documentary “The Compleat Beatles” (this author’s first real exposure to the band’s history) as background during an interview with George Martin about Beatles For Sale, for some reason. So in that strict sense, it’s actually been officially released, albeit a few seconds’ worth.

Unfortunately, “Just Fun” is a terrible, terrible, awful lyric. Even Paul agrees.

There was one called ‘Just Fun’ we couldn’t take any further: ‘They said that our love was just fun / The day that our friendship begun / There’s no blue moon / That I can see / There’s never been / In history …’ Ooops! It’s horrible, this is horrible. When we heard heard that rhyme we just went off that song in a big way. We were never really able to fix it either. But they’d get written down and we’d play ‘em. We’d say, ‘Wow, we’ve written some songs, you know, d’you wanna hear them? “Said our love was just fun …”’

There’s never been a blue moon in history? For heaven’s sake, Paul, there was a blue moon over Liverpool in August 1956, 11 months before you met John and wrote this song!

It turned out OK for these guys, though, and Lennon/McCartney — together and alone — figured it out. For instance, we all can agree that “She Said She Said” — the next song the group played on January 8, after a mention from George — is a quite terrific lyric.

Considering the band never performed the song live, and presumably hadn’t played it at all together in two-and-a-half years, the group holds together the first verse decently enough.

As we recount events two days before George left the Beatles on January 10, it’s worth marking that the original 1966 recording session of “She Said She Said” was missing Paul. He walked out after he “had a blarney” with the others, the first Beatle to tentatively leave the group.

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Jan. 8: Rocky and the Rubbers

Our world lost — and the stars and heavens regained — David Bowie last week. I didn’t feel much like blogging about the Beatles for a little bit, even though this post had already been mostly written. But as the man once sang, time is waiting in the wings, and we should be on by now. So please enjoy the continuation of the Beatles’ Nagra tapes timeline, picking up with the morning of January 8, 1969, as David Bowie was celebrating his 22nd birthday across town and working on writing Space Oddity.

It’s tough to say “this is when they got serious” when there were laughs and smiles throughout, but after more than a half hour on the January 8, 1969, Nagra reels, the Beatles at least found a bit of motivation and a short-term goal to complete, getting serious in deed if not demeanor. With a concert to be staged, John, Paul, George and Ringo gathered their focus for a chirpy, energetic run-through of four songs deemed early contenders for a live show.

Paul led the proceedings, tabbing his original duet as the opener: “Johnny, ‘On Our Way Back Home.’”

If you’ve seen Let It Be — and I really hope you have and will one day again on some sort of modern entertainment replay device – you’ve been struck by how loose John and Paul are, hamming it up as they sing into the same microphone.

Two of Us

Paul, who Ringo in an interview the previous year referred to as“Elvis” in reference to his performance of “Lady Madonna,” was closer to the toxically impaired King, comically slurring and sneering throughout a take that both he and John sang without benefit of a lyric sheet. That’s how we end up with John, laughingly repeating his mistake “two of us wearing postcards” once the take was complete. They laughed the as they sang it during the take, too.

While Paul and John can’t often get through more than a few words without butchering a lyric, there was no turning back once they started, with this a sincere attempt at a run-through.

The sequence appears slightly edited in the film, cutting the performance in half from its actual three minutes to a minute-and-a-half. Had the group secretly abandoned the film and this leaked, conventional wisdom would have been that the group had a blast at Twickenham. Maybe they were just hamming it up for the cameras — or John was, at least — but it’s hard to deny a somewhat different spirit in the room with a watch and listen. When things were languid at Twickenham, it was painfully clear.

A visually telling edit by movie director Michael Lindsay-Hogg comes around 30 seconds into the clip, as we catch John glancing over at Yoko, who blankly stares back, as he stands oh, so close to Paul, showing some of the genuine affection that they certainly used to have and somewhere deep in there still did.

Yoko and Us

Two of us, and also Yoko

If you can use the word “tragedy” when referring to the fact a song was omitted from a compilation –- you shouldn’t, but I will, deplorably -– it’s a tragedy this take didn’t make it onto Anthology 3. It’s in the film, thus is a recognizable, published “official” release, so despite the issues with the lyrics, it’s “out there.” Consumers would have understood having an(other) imperfect take on the compilation, if not welcomed it.

In the film, the song comes out of the “shocktric shocks” sequence from a few days earlier, and then dumps into “I’ve Got a Feeling,” but in reality the group – after the improvised “You Got Me Going” and a few unserious seconds of “Twist and Shout” – delivers “Don’t Let Me Down.” Note the time between the end of “Two of Us” and “Don’t Let Me Down” is less than a minute. Dallying was at a minimum. While “Don’t Let Me Down” appears several times in Let It Be, this version is not in the film.

George didn’t quite nail the introduction, but again there was no concern when the lyrics were muffed. John simply shouted “Snotgobbler!” and moves on. That’s rock and roll. So was the pre-primal scream from John as the song began.  So were the lyrics “nobody ever rubbed me like she do me,” which John subs in at one point. The band played on, and musically it was relatively tight, really an achievement at this point in the song’s lifespan.

beardclose up

Paul beard porn from the January 8 sessions, as seen in Let it Be. Thank me later.

John came out of the high-energy take with thanks from the “band.” “God bless you, ladies and gentlemen, I’d just like to say a sincere farewell from Rocky and the Rubbers, this is Dirty Mac himself saying …”

Paul cut in, all business: “I’ve Got a Feeling.”

goodmorning

“Good morning!”

The performance was a tick slower at the outset, and with continued lyrical miscues (especially Paul and John mismatching “oh no” and “oh yeah” early on), but it retained the same vigor as the two previous songs. Paul shouts a celebratory “good morning!” after wailing “somebody who looks like you!” as George hits the middle-eight guitar part.

This sequence made the film, notably appended to a particularly torturous rehearsal from a day later.

Three songs into the run-through, John revealed some fatigue, perhaps reflecting the weight of the previous week more than the prior 10 minutes: “Only another two days to go, then we’ll have another two off.” But Paul then offers a pick-me-up, suggesting, “Do ‘One After 909’.” So they did.

This number marked the one point in the four-song run-through the group stopped after they started, rebooting the take after George’s solo. Once again, there’s a disconnect with the film. Based on clothes alone, this performance of “One After 909” is featured visually early in the movie — after Paul’s discussion of the song with Lindsay-Hogg from a couple days earlier (as seen in the film) — but paired with the audio of a take from January 9.

The movie and even a moment of the Let It Be LP was further fleshed out with a bit of memorable dialogue coming out of “One After 909.” You’ll hear it on the Let It Be LP prior to “For You Blue,” George’s eventual lone contribution to album that was just days old, as John reads from the newspaper.

Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members.

What, you thought she’d be OK with it?

Again, we have a disconnect between the movie and the tapes, as the film moves to a previous day’s take of “Oh! Darling” while in real time, the band had completed their first commitment to a run-through for a show yet to materialize. It was rough, but it was spirited, and if anything, the set must have given them the idea there would be a light at the end of the tunnel if they chose to shine it. With at least four fully formed songs, they were on their way, and the apparent positivity could easily be read to bode good fortune ahead.

Probably inspired by “One After 909,” they continued a quick dip into their back catalog.

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TMBP Extra: Celebrate anything you want

Three years ago in this space, we celebrated Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday with a brief look back at the period between June 18, 1968 and 1969, a stretch that straddled the Get Back/Let It Be sessions that we explore here. On the occasion of the diamond jubilee of John Lennon’s birth, we’ll do the same thing people have done for more than 50 years: compare John and Paul, and as usual, with much different results.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Birthday Cake

Smile, John, it’s your birthday!

Forty-seven years ago today — October 9, 1968 — was John Lennon’s 28th birthday. The Beatles were primarily in the mixing stage of the White Album. John was in the midst of a divorce with Cynthia. Nine days later — there’s that number that follows John around — he and Yoko were victims of a drug bust at their home as they were handling the difficult release of Two Virgins.

In the coming months, the White Album was completed and released, the Beatles assembled in January 1969 for a monthlong writing and recording session and they subsequently recorded and completed Abbey Road (along with other songs, like John’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” a No. 1 hit). Those achievements fell in the same period as between Paul’s 1968 and 1969 birthdays. So what’s different for John and in the time frame that’s shifted by four months?

Yoko, obviously, and her dramatically increased role in John’s life, replacing Paul as his primary collaborator. It wasn’t just her, but what she enabled John to be willing to do. John with Yoko creating their own art and performance outside of the Beatles — bed-ins, experimental music, films, publications — all things that grew from being an outlet away from the band to becoming a full replacement for the band that Paul was expending his energy to keep together and internally manage. Like John and Yoko, Paul got married, too, and started his own life with Linda, increasingly spending time at his farm in Scotland. The Beatles were his band.

Three weeks before the Get Back sessions, John formed the Dirty Mac for the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus in December 1969. His bed-in recording of “Give Peace a Chance” was released within days of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in June 1969. Two weeks before the release of Abbey Road in September 1969, his first iteration of the Plastic Ono Band took the stage in Toronto.  Upon his return on Sept. 20, he told the rest of the Beatles he quit the group. He wouldn’t perform together with the other three Beatles again. Ten days later he recorded “Cold Turkey.”

All of the Beatles by this point had their own lives, marriages, projects outside the band.  For John, the Beatles had become the outside project in a wildly tumultuous period coinciding with his divorce, his immersion into Yoko, a use of harder drugs and a willingness to move on past Paul. All the factors are related. This may not have been John’s greatest period as a pop music songwriter, at least in volume, but given the variety of artistic pursuits and chances he was willing to take — including the biggest one of all, replacing Paul with Yoko — it was a remarkable period in John Lennon’s career and life.

On August 28, 1969, Linda gave birth to Mary, Paul’s first child. On October 9, John’s 29th birthday and the end of the period we’re recalling here, Yoko miscarried.  They would have their first child together, Sean, exactly six years later, on October 9, 1975.

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Jan. 8: All through the day

It all came together thanks to television, LSD, a dance and a dare.

George Harrison started the fifth day of the Beatles’ sessions at Twickenham, January 8, 1969, with the dare, challenging director Michael Lindsay-Hogg with a new song in hand.

“‘I Me Mine’ it’s called,” George says to the crinkling of paper being unfolded. “Should I sing it to you? I don’t care if you don’t want it, I don’t give a shit about it. I don’t give a fuck [if it’s] going in your musical. [laughter]

“It’s a heavy waltz.”

An edited version of this moment — the origin story of what would become one of George’s two contributions to the Let It Be LP — along with a performance of the song, appears in the film of the same name in a three-minute sequence that closed out the Twickenham portion of the movie. On the Nagra tapes, the band is introduced to the song and would later work through and rehearse it roughly five separate times in the five hours of the day’s tapes, covering about an hour total.

The first 45 seconds of the song are familiar: It’s George accompanying himself on guitar to the first two verses of the song, and those lyrics are the same as would eventually be released. But to this point, there is no chorus, instead a brief flamenco-inspired guitar part bridges the verses.

After this initial debut, George interrupted himself to again gush about John’s 1969 diary — “Got up. Went to work. Came home. Watched telly. Went to bed.” — providing himself a segue to his prior night’s entertainment. Once more, it was the Beatles talking about and drawing inspiration from television.

“It was the TV, you see.” George said, recounting he was watching “that science fiction thing, but then it suddenly turned into that crap about medals and things.” That crap was an episode of the weekly program Europa, “The Titled and the Unentitled.” Per the original TV listing, the show “looks at the aspects of pomp and circumstance through European eyes-with a special report from French Television on the investiture this summer of the Prince of Wales.”

George Harrison, MBE, may have found the subject matter “crap,” but in his role as musical prospector, he found value amidst the precious medals being discussed. Specifically some incidental music during the program — Johann Strauss’ “Kaiser Walzer” — sparked George at some point between 9:55 and 10:25 p.m. GMT the night of January 7.

(George would have seen a different performance. This one is from 2008.)

“That’s what gave me the idea. Suddenly, it was the bit where they were all coming in from the ball. I think it was Austria, and they all had their medals. And there was some music that was just playing … like a 3/4 thing. Some things like that happen where you just hear something, and it registers in your head as something else. And so I just had that in there, the waltz thing.

“It’s like one of those things where they’re all swaying.”

Years later, in his pseudo autobiography that took the name of this very song, George addresses the origins of the lyrics.

I Me Mine is the ‘ego’ problem. …

I suppose having LSD was like somebody catapulting me out into space. The LSD experience was the biggest experience that I’d had up until that time. … [A]fter one dose of acid I felt I was stuck in this thing, which later I realised is called ‘relativity’. So, the big ‘I’ I’m talking about is the absolute, whereas we’re in the relative where everything is good-bad, yes-no, up-down, black-white. That’s why they called it the heaven and hell drug! But life is heaven and hell, we see it as, or make it into hell or heaven: there’s no heaven and hell beyond relativity.

So suddenly, I looked around and everything I could see was relative to my ego — you know, like ‘that’s my piece of paper’ and ‘that’s my flannel, or ‘give it to me or I am’. It drove me crackers; I hated everything about my ego — it was a flash of everything false and impermanent which I disliked. But later, I learned from it: to realise that there is somebody else in here apart from old blabbermouth …

Anyway that’s what came out of it: I Me Mine. The truth within us has to be realised: when you realise that everything else that you see and do and touch and smell isn’t real, then you may know what reality is and can answer the question ‘who am I’?.

After an extensive return to discussion of the “science fiction” — the series “Out of the Unknown” and the episode “Immortality Inc.” as excitedly shared in rich detail by George and Ringo — George presents the new song to Paul, who had just arrived at Twickenham.

“Is that grammatical? Flowing more freely than wine? Flowing much freer?” George asks. “If there were such a word as ‘freer’ is it ‘f-r-e-e-e-r?” George asks. “It’s ‘f-r-e-r’” Michael concludes before Paul chips in, “It’s like ‘queer.’”

It would be more than two hours until the group returned to “I Me Mine” — what they did in the interim will, of course, be the subject of subsequent posts. Once they did return to the song, George addressed John, who wasn’t yet at the studio when the song was first introduced. “Would you like to learn a new one?” George asks. “Very simple,” George assures him.

After John clowns around through a couple abbreviated spins through the song, he mockingly suggests he play the barrel organ, while George had more seriously considered adding an acoustic bass. “Want the accordion?” Paul asks George, who’s open to that sincere suggestion. “If it’s not here, then just fuck it.” Alas, Paul’s accordion — he did have one, you know — wasn’t at Twickenham. What John would really like is an electric piano setup, but that too isn’t yet available. One thing they do have is some working effects, and an upbeat John has plenty of fun with the echo.

“Are you going to teach us this?” John asks, and George supplies the band, at last, with chords to “I Me Mine.” Soon enough, however, John doesn’t play at all. Instead, as Strauss intended, he and Yoko waltz on the soundstage as George, Paul and Ringo provide the soundtrack.

imemine

George loves the antics, and doesn’t need the extra musical accompaniment John would offer anyway.

“Do you want to do that on the show?” George asks John. “That’d be great, ‘cause it’s so simple to do, the tune. But to do that waltz, or something, if you want to bag it up a bit.” Laughing, Paul offers a mock show introduction to the song: “John and Yoko would like to waltz in their white bag, And there’s a white bag waltzing around. They were doing things inside it.

“We should do it like an escapoligists thing. You can see they’re not tied at all. There’s nothing up their sleeves. And we put the bag over them.”

Excitedly, George thinks about playing up the character of the song itself, too. “Castanets on that bit,” he suggests for the flamenco part. Through the entirety of the song’s development and rehearsal, the Beatles are animated, embracing the fun of a song outside their normal sound, and thinking visually for the show. Excepting some of Paul’s offbeat ideas for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” it’s one of the rare times on the tapes the band actively discusses a performance of a song and explicitly how it could be staged.

“Are you sure that’s grammatic?” George asks once more. “Flowing more freely?” Michael assures him it’s fine.

As rehearsals continue and the group works out the transition from the verses into the flamenco bit, Paul finds a bit of inspiration, recalling “Domino,” a hit for Tony Martin nearly two decades earlier, and covered by the likes of Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams (whose cover Paul seems to evoke most) in the years since.

While the group worked out the newest Harrisong, the conversation twisted to George’s very first composition, “Don’t Bother Me,” which surfaced on With The Beatles in 1963.

You know I was in bed, at Bourenmouth, we were on a summer season. And the doctor gave me some tonic, which must have had amphetamine or something in it. And the rest of you all just drank it to get high. And that’s when I wrote that one.

John and Yoko apparently continued to dance with enough frequency that Paul called them out on it. “You’ll spoil the spontaneity of the dance when you actually have to do it,” he said. Paul, along with George, offered dance instructions to the pair as the song sharpened quickly. Soon enough the production gained Lindsay-Hogg’s attention, as he must have missed several of the rehearsals as the day progressed.

“That’s great,” MLH says, apparently seeing the dance for the first time and being told it was for the show. “Its beautiful. The whole thing should be very Brechtian. … [The show] should be called ‘January 20, 1969,’ and that every song has a character. Like that’s the character of that one.” The conversation continues about the “very theatrical” live show. But that’s a story for another blog post.

imemine-clip

The Threetles rehearse “I Me Mine.” From the Let It Be film.

Returning to the song, Paul plays the role of fixer again, like he did with “Don’t Let Me Down” days before, as George troubleshoots the transition from the verses into the flamenco break. “That sounds like it would be a good rock bit, it gets out of the idea of the waltz.” The next take on tape (there’s a cut but it doesn’t sounds as if much time had passed) has Paul and George hashing out a chorus that starts as “my my my” to a 12-bar blues progression.

“Just do it like a beep-beep harmony,” Paul says before singing “my my my” in a high register, as he sang “beep beep, beep beep, yeah!” in “Drive My Car” less than four years earlier. This chorus then fell into the flamenco break.

We’re left with another tape cut, but here it is clear a little bit of time has elapsed. The 12-bar progression remains, but now “my my, me me, mine” is sung over it. In a few minutes that would evolve into the “I I, me me, mine” that was later immortalized on wax, but not first without a little bit of push and pull between Paul and George.

Paul: “My my” is good to sing. It’s like “mm-mah, mm-mah.”

“I, I” is not … as easy to do. … It’s like “nn-night” is easy to sing. “Rr-right.” The “mm-mah” is easy … It’s like “my, my, my” is easy to shout.”

While he says Paul can sing what he wants, George’s mind is made up and he continues to sing “I I, me me, mine.” It stuck, and Paul subsequently sang George’s suggestion for the day’s final few attempts (and, of course, on the eventual release).

The final stab at the song for the day, a complete take, is what appeared in the film. For the final hour on the tapes, the band moved onto “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” before wrapping the day with a lengthy discussion about the live show.

By way of comparison of other songs the group had been working on these first few days, the writing/rehearsal sessions for “I Me Mine” were painless. The development and improvement of the song was linear, resulting in a final run through that may not have been release-ready — nothing at Twickenham was nor was intended to be — but was a sharp, concise (clocking in at under two minutes), complete song that was a reasonable contender for the live show. At that point, with the performance looming in 11 days, that’s all they needed. “Bits” were generally worked out, and there was even a visual to add to the live production.

And about that visual: John and Yoko’s dance. It’s entirely feasible and reasonable to say their waltz, however cheeky and contrived it was, is the reason “I Me Mine” exists at all, at least in the Beatles’ catalog. To explain, we must look beyond January 8, 1969. Well past.

The Beatles didn’t attempt “I Me Mine” during the balance of the January 1969 sessions. This was it; the song’s introduction and development on January 8 marked the entirety of the Beatles’ work on the song during the Get Back sessions. George demoed three songs seven weeks later on his birthday, but “I Me Mine” wasn’t among them (instead, he recorded “Something,” “All Things Must Pass” and “Old Brown Shoe,” versions of which appeared on Anthology 3). If the Beatles ever considered “I Me Mine” for Abbey Road, evidence is lacking.

The song’s sound and words were born of TV and LSD. But the reason “I Me Mine” exists at all as a song by the Beatles is because of the dance.

rockband

You can play “I Me Mine” on the Savile Row rooftop in Rock Band: Beatles, but George himself never played the song live on either his 1974 or 1991 tours.

When John and Yoko waltzed to “I Me Mine,” the underdeveloped show idea finally had a specific visual Michael Lindsay-Hogg could attach to a song. Yet, in less than two days’ time, George quit the group, and upon his return, he made clear he didn’t want to perform any of his songs live (although he did bring several more new songs to the studio to work on). But for the purposes of the Let It Be film, the job was done. The waltz ensured a place for “I Me Mine” in the movie, and thus, required the song a place on the soundtrack. Thing is, there was never a proper recording done of the song at Twickenham, and there wasn’t suitable recording equipment there anyway. In every prior iteration of a potential Get Back/Let It Be album, as compiled by Glyn Johns, “I Me Mine” was left off, since it hadn’t otherwise been a consideration for the LP. The movie changed that.

Once the song was earmarked for the film and thus the album, the Threetles made their debut. On January 3 and 4, 1970 — almost a year to the day after George wrote the song and brought it to Twickenham — George, Paul and Ringo spent one last session together at Abbey Road, recording “I Me Mine.” John was on holiday in Denmark, but that almost didn’t matter: He had already privately quit the band more than two months earlier. As George remarked, “Dave Dee is no longer with us” as they went ahead, for one last time, to “carry on the good work that’s always gone down in [Studio] No. 2.”

Phil Spector took the recording, embellished it, doubled its length and tacked it onto Let It Be as the Beatles formally expired as a group. Like John’s “Across the Universe,” the song it follows on Let It Be and precedes on Let It Be … Naked, “I Me Mine” in its final form is not a product of 1969. It’s worth noting, too, that George turned around “I Me Mine” in a relatively complete form in less than 24 hours. John dragged out a nearly year-old “Across The Universe” and still couldn’t make it workable for the show.

The same three men who laid down “I Me Mine”  — George, Paul and Ringo — returned to the studio together 24 years later to record John’s “Free as a Bird.” Paul convinced himself it was OK to record a new Beatles song without John.

“I invented a little scenario,” Paul said of recording the group’s first song since “I Me Mine.”

“[John’s] gone away on holiday.”

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Jan. 7: Tumble blindly

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

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

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

From his interview with Rolling Stone in 1970:

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

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

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

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

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

An early take of the song eventually surfaced on Anthology 2 in 1996 while another take from that same session was ultimately used as the basis for the Let It Be version before being reworked again for Let it Be … Naked.

That part of the story comes later, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tumble blindly?” he asks with incredulity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

universe1b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TMBP Extra: Time to leave the capsule

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

Life on Mars and Venus

Life on Mars and Venus

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

New York, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George on David Bowie, 1974

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

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

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Jan. 7: Bangers and mashups

OK, stick with me here.

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

Really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And … whistle!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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