Tag Archives: Ringo Starr

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Jan. 9: Road work

He launched the January 9 Get Back sessions with “Another Day,” an ode to the working woman. Paul McCartney followed it by making the most of his own makeshift satellite office in Twickenham.

Paul’s morning piano sessions weren’t simply exhibitions, nor was it just for conditioning as he alluded to director Michael Lindsay-Hogg at the outset of the day’s Beatles business. The Get Back sessions’ most prolific writer, Paul treated the recording studio as a design studio, too, frequently shaping his songs and writing his lyrics while on the clock. This day offered a terrifically vivid window into that process.

After “Another Day,” a revisiting of “The Palace of the King of Birds” and a quick spin of “Let It Be,” Paul dug into “The Long and Winding Road” for a third consecutive day. The first verse is locked in and would be unchanged through its eventual release. “The second verse, leave a space, for the same thing,” Paul sang as filler. As he continued, Paul play-tested the rhyme of “the many times I’ve cried” and “the many ways I’ve tried” — tested to ultimate success, obviously.

Less successful was Paul’s plan to work in the word “pleasure” into the lyric.

I’ve had lots of pleasure, but said better. …
I’ve had many pleasure. …
I’ve had much pleasure. …
I’ve had lots of pleasure from the many ways I’ve tried.

After less than four minutes on “The Long and Winding Road,” Paul moved on. “There’s no more to that yet,” he dictated to Mal Evans, the do-it-all roadie (the group no longer touring, his roads were now long and winding ones). “But if you leave it around, I’ll still know where I’m going to fill in.”

Following a momentary return to “Mother Mary,” i.e. “Let It Be,” Paul unwrapped another new number, this one a song that would eventually find a home at Abbey Road’s terminus.

Paul didn’t know it at the time, but “Her Majesty” was complete. His presentation of music and lyrics was the same as would appear as Abbey Road’s coda, although here Paul would scat a second verse that would never be written. This version’s introduction, especially, evoked the current, bouncy state of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and would be the lone instance “Her Majesty” could be heard on piano. Paul played the song one more time these sessions, weeks later, on guitar.

“Paul continued his trip across what would become Abbey Road. Evoking Frank Sinatra’s 1956 LP that reinvented pop standards in a more contemporary style, Paul pointed out to laughter that “Golden Slumbers” — unveiled two days earlier — “should be ready for a Songs for Swinging Singles album.”

Paul offered a gentle delivery of “Golden Slumbers,” and pointed out the direction he’d like to take the song. “It really should be like a fairy tale. ‘Once upon a time, there lived a king. Sleep pretty darling, do not cry.’”

Leading into the next line, Paul introduces the original melody that he intended to change: “The bit you might remember: And I will sing a lullaby.”

Paul repeated his experiment merging “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.” And as he did three days earlier, likewise in Ringo Starr’s presence, Paul signaled his intention to expand the song beyond its single line we all know. Paul doesn’t have the verses yet, but he knows what he wants them to say.

“Like a story,” he said. “A bit like ‘Act Naturally,’ where the tagline keeps coming up.”

In referencing one of Ringo’s showcase songs, it’s another piece of evidence pointing to the reason Paul opted to give the drummer a prominent voice on “Carry That Weight,” thinking of him for this song months before it was recorded for Abbey Road.

At this point, Paul wanted “Carry That Weight” to evolve into a comedy song featuring verses describing “just the sort of normal kind of troubles that everyone has” before leading into the “carry that weight” chorus. “There might be a verse about, like, ‘I got in trouble with the wife, I got drunk, something, something, something, something. … Woke up the next morning with a weight upon my head, and I found out it was my head. … Boy! You’re gonna carry that weight …’

“It could be one of those things, you know, in those songs where you’ve got everything, and everything is so great. And this morning, one of my eggs broke, (giggling). Just something trivial. The right shoe’s a bit tight. … ‘Boy, you’re gonna to carry that weight!’” Ringo sang along with every chorus.

Paul indeed delivered a wait, and we can close the circle on our story of “Carry that Weight.” The Nagra tapes don’t capture the song again. If he ever pursued the novelty song idea, there’s no record of it. By the time we get to the song’s actual recording for Abbey Road in July, it was exactly as the song was to this point: simply the line: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time!”

Still at the piano, and unaccompanied by any other Beatles, Paul took a detour off (the future) Abbey Road and returned to the long and winding one for the second time in less than 15 minutes on the tapes. And again, Paul was very clinical, deliberate and open with his songwriting.

“I was thinking of having a weather obstacle,” he said before taking a stab at a new verse: “The storm clouds and the rain/The clouds disappear.”

The song’s imagery evoked a famed film thoroughfare.

There’s a Beatles-related photo for everything! Here’s Paul with the cast of Return to Oz, for some reason, in 1985.

“It’s sort of like the Wizard of Oz,” Mal said. “Did you ever see the Wizard of Oz?”

“Yeah,” Paul quickly answered, clearly not paying attention at first, before continuing,“No, no, no, I didn’t.”

“The yellow brick road,” Mal said before Michael broke in, “A heartbreaker. Yeah, it’s great.”

Paul returned to the road he was constructing, singing a placeholder verse.

“The thing that’s up ahead/at the end of the road.”

For a lyric, Mal suggested recounting the obstacles on the road, but Paul dismissed that idea, reflecting the pervasive and prevailing uncertainty surrounding the live show. “We have enough obstacles without putting them in the song.”

Much like George asked Paul a week earlier, regarding Maxwell’s, Michael questioned the song’s endgame: “Is it going to end happily or not sure yet?”

Interestingly Paul didn’t address the emotion behind the song’s ending, just that he had an ending. And it was very close to the one that would appear on the record more than a year later:

“And still they lead me back to the long an winding road
You left me waiting here a long, long time ago
Don’t leave me standing here, lead me to your door”

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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?

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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?”

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TMBP Extra: Oh what joy

With birthday posts previously produced for Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, it’s about time we righted a wrong, and completed the set with the man born as Richard Starkey. Like the others and in the spirit of this blog, here’s a look at Ringo Starr’s life as it straddled the big days circled on the calendar in 1968 and 1969.

Ringo Starr, 1969

How did you spend your 29th birthday? Ringo Starr, the eldest Beatle, spent July 7, 1969, at EMI Studios on Abbey Road — like he spent so many of days in his 20s — laying down the drum track for “Here Comes The Sun.” We’ve all been stuck working on our birthdays, but this doesn’t sound like a bad gig, if you can get it.

Yet, 11 months earlier, Ringo gave up that gig, walking out on the Beatles during the White Album sessions.

From the Anthology book:

I left because I felt two things: I felt I wasn’t playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy and I was an outsider. I went to see John … I said, ‘I’m leaving the group because I”m not playing well and I feel unloved and out of it, and you three are really close.’ And John said, ‘I thought it was you three!’

So I went over to Paul’s and knocked on the door. I said the same thing: ‘I’m leaving the band. I feel you three guys are really close and I’m out of it.’ And Paul said, ‘I thought it was you three!’

I didn’t even bother going to George then. I said, ‘I’m going on holiday.’ I took the kids and we went to Sardinia.

He famously returned two weeks later after to a flower-covered drum kit as the sessions continued (they never stopped recording, with Paul filling in on drums for a few songs).

Still, Ringo’s time away was fruitful, spent on Peter Sellers’ yacht, where the captain told him stories about octopuses on the seabed.

A couple of tokes later with the guitar — and we had ‘Octopus’s Garden’!

Ringo’s relationship with Sellers — a member of The Goon Show, beloved by the teenage future Beatles, and whose novelty records had been produced by George Martin — dated back a few years and would benefit the drummer in several ways in the decade’s final years. In November 1968, Ringo took advantage of a Sellers’ market, moving into the actor’s former Brookfield House estate in Elstead, Surrey. Just a couple months later, the two would co-star in a movie. But first, Ringo had another movie to film with the Beatles.

Ringo’s resistance to go abroad during the Get Back sessions — he was most insistent of any of the Beatles — led to the beauty of the rooftop performance. This blog’s entire purpose is to tell that story.

Musically, Ringo did Ringo things in the January 1969 sessions, and as a songwriter, he continued work on “Octopus’s Garden” (as seen in the Let It Be film) and also brought a few unfinished songs to the table, too.

But the sessions were just a warm-up for what came next at Twickenham Studios, where Ringo — teamed up with Sellers — filmed The Magic Christian, his first true starring role (Ringo had a small part playing a Mexican gardener in Candy, which was released in this period, too). This took time, with filming running from February into May. The film would be released in December 1969.

Let It Be — the film and the record — wouldn’t see a release until 1970, a few months before Ringo turned 30. But the Beatles weren’t finished yet in the wake of those sessions. “Octopus’s Garden” would be formally recorded in April 1969, although recording for Abbey Road, to this point sporadic, wouldn’t get into full swing until July.

In December 1969, Ringo said in an interview with the BBC that “I want to be a film actor. I don’t want to be like Cary Grant or one of them who, like, really do the same performance in everything, and the story is the only thing that changes.”

Ringo & Barbara at their wedding

That may be the biggest takeaway in the career of Ringo Starr between July 7, 1968 and 1969 — because he did look at life beyond, or at least in addition to, the Beatles and rock and roll. Without the songwriting gifts of John, Paul and George, Ringo applied his natural charm to film, and was finally able to step fully out into the spotlight and marquee, without other Beatles to his side, or front. And while he was successful in the early 1970s with his solo career, he remained active on the screen, too, even if it wasn’t to that same critical or commercial success.

If you judge success by the bigger things in life, however, Ringo’s foray into film couldn’t have been any more fruitful. A few months before his 40th birthday, in 1980, Ringo filmed Caveman, starring alongside model Barbara Bach. After meeting on the set, they would wed a year later, and have been together ever since.

 

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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.”

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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 Shoctric 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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