The Long and Winding Road

The Beatles: certainly the dominant force in music for the second half of the twentieth century - as ever, in my opinionated opinion. Beginning with the LP Please Please Me - their first effort, recorded in one mammoth twelve hour session and culminating in an astounding second-take vocal from John Lennon on Twist and Shout - each successive release is a quantum  pole-vault in songwriting, performance and technology. Drawing heavily from their stage show in Hamburg, here also are first

glimpses of the world changing songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

With the Beatles - released in the US as Meet the Beatles, with significant playlist changes - confirms that emergence. Nine of the fourteen tracks are Lennon/McCartney originals, opening with the Motown inspired call and

response of It Won’t be Long. The covers are mind boggling: John’s visceral rendition of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), again on William Garret’s Please Mr. Postman, and yet again with Smokey Robinson’s You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me; George steps up to the microphone for Richard Brian Drapkin’s Devil in Her Heart, and Paul on Meredith Wilson’s Till There Was You from The Music Man. At this point the world began to notice there might be something unusual happening.

That suspicion is confirmed with A Hard Days Night, comprised entirely of originals built around the movie. Here is an astounding leap in songwriting and performance: the startling, suspended dominant seventh chord that opens the album; the call and response of Tell Me

Why; the perfect Everly Brothers homage If I Fell; the raucous Can’t Buy Me Love; the Brazilian influence of And I Love Her. There is no filler, unheard of at that or any other time. 

Beatles For Sale may have been their own sly comment on the cost of fame and fortune. I would guess the newness was beginning to wear a bit thin, and there is a subtle aura of treading water: the old stage chestnuts are again mined, but new frontiers are pushed with Lennon’s No Reply and I’m a Loser, and Macca’s lyrical I’ll Follow the Sun.

The second movie soundtrack, Help, continues the feel of marking time: John’s title song and Ticket to Ride stand out, as does Paul’s I’ve Just Seen a Face; Yesterday blew the doors out in terms of what was now possible, and in the world’s expectations. George Harrison introduces his dark horse songwriter persona with I Need You and You Like Me Too Much.

Rubber Soul is yet another tesseract in the time/space continuum. This album inspired Brian Wilson to write and produce Pet Sounds, and both of those tesseract the paradigm of popular music. Monster performances strut from the group on John’s Nowhere Man, Girl, In My Life and Run For Your Life; Paul’s Drive My Car, You Won’t See Me, Michelle and I’m Looking Through You; George hones his songwriting

skills with Think For Yourself and If I Needed Someone.

And just when we all thought they were at the apex of their creativity, with nowhere left to go, there is Revolver. Beginning with Lennon’s magnum opus Tomorrow Never Knows, which draws from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this one song takes up-wards of forty hours to record.

Do SOMETHING to my voice,” he implored engineer Geoff Emerick. And he does indeed sound like a disembodied sprit, his vocal caught in the centrifuge of a Leslie speaker system.

Otherworldly, with what sounds like flocks of birds and a small army of tom toms, the four, George Martin and Geoff Emerick invert and reinvent the recording process (John discovered ‘backwards’ during I’m Only Sleeping, and wanted to record the entire album that way. The bird sounds are meant to simulate Tibetan Monks, I have it on good authority.) Lennon’s additional contributions include I’m Only Sleeping; She Said, She Said; And Your Bird Can Sing, and Dr.
Robert. This may be where the ‘Lennon = rocker/McCartney = ballad’ myth originates: Paul’s input is much more delicate, with Eleanor Rigby, Here There and Everywhere, and For No One. And then, the paradigm breaker: Got to Get You Into My Life: a brilliant Motown style rave-up, and Good Day Sunshine: a great summer song in a summer replete with great summer songs. George introduces Indian instruments to the world at large with Love you To, and the acerbic Taxman.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band further deconstructs the recording process, adding exponents to the care, creativity and craft involved. I know I am almost alone in thinking this is not the work of genius it is commonly regarded as - there are just too many pieces missing from the ‘concept album’ puzzle, as Macca has pointed out repeatedly - but it icons a generation’s flashback/hallucination of the Summer of Love. Myth, as Frank Zappa loved to point out, will outlive fact every time. Ultimately Paul’s creation, the theme and title song are his, along with A Little Help From My Friends, Fixing a Hole, When I’m Sixty Four, and She’s Leaving Home. Lennon’s stellar contribution is the lysergic (which he denied) Lucy in the Sky (with Diamonds). Harrison’s heady contribution is the heavily Indian Within You, Without You. Lennon and McCartney collaborate - rare, at this point in time - on the closer A Day in the Life.  Thank engineer Geoff Emerick the for endless, ending crescendo.

Magical Mystery Tour, from their first-time film production but third movie, is the first crack in the invincible armor, allowing critics the opportunity to snipe. While the movie was arguably not great, the soundtrack is a greatest hits compilation of their psychedelic period: the first recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper - Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (John and Paul’s respective take on the same idea) - released as singles, as were Hello Goodbye, Baby You’re a Rich Man and All You Need is Love - Lennon’s tongue in cheek love anthem. The redone soundtrack for Yellow Submarine
becomes a spiritual substitute. Or sequel.

The India excursion was a creative watershed, and the beginning of the end. Songwriting again grew in prodigal leaps and unexpected directional twists, for John and Paul and George. Donovan Leitch, in their entourage, taught John to Travis Pick, and the results are spectacular: Dear Prudence, Julia, Happiness is a Warm Gun, Cry Baby Cry and I’m So Tired all emerge from this one source of inspiration.

The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album) is brilliant: four massively talented musicians coming into their own, pointed in four very personal directions. This was the first incident where I listened to the first side (of 4) for a month and a half, astonished by something new in each successive listening: Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence, Glass Onion, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, Wild Honey Pie, The Continuing Story of Bungalow BIll, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Happiness is a Warm Gun. After a month or so I turned the record over, out of pure curiosity, for a flash of satori: it may be more astounding than the first side! Martha My Dear, I’m so Tired, Blackbird, Piggies, Rocky Raccoon, Don’t Pass me By, Why Don’t We do it In the Road?, I Will and Julia. Together this one album was my sole listening experience for 3 months.  

Eventually I put the second record on my turntable: Birthday, Yer Blues, Mother Nature’s Son, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (except for me and my monkey), Sexy Sadie (originally titled Maharishi), Helter Skelter, and Long Long Long. You’ve probably guessed: that made a home for itself on my platter. Then - much later - side four: Revolution 1. Honey Pie, Savoy Truffle, Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9, and Goodnight.

Just when I thought I had their individual styles pegged, they would throw me: John would come up with the mesmerizing Julia about his mother; Paul would howl on Helter Skelter (at the end Ringo screams “I got blisters on my fingers!!”); George surprised me at every turn, but While My Guitar Gently Weeps was just a stunner. After the puzzler that was Revolution 9, I was put away by Good Night when Ringo revealed it was a Lennon song. (“John has a lot of soul, y’know?”) A half year devoted to this staggering display of creativity from these four lads from Merseyside.

The Beatles Again (usually referred to as Hey Jude) was never released in the UK, and on CD here -

eventually, sort-of - as Past Masters 2. A collection of songs only released as singles or EPs, most of these are essential to the telling of the Beatles saga.........who am I kidding? Every note is required listening. Geoff Emerick - who was the recording engineer at EMI on almost everything the boys recorded - has a memoir entitled Here There and Everywhere: he here tells stories out of school that destroy me.

    In Hey Jude at the beginning of the third verse, between the lines the minute you let her under your skin / then you begin - listen carefully: Paul hits a clunker on the piano, edited out during mastering, but if you listen carefully (I suggest headphones), buried in the mix you can hear him shout “fuckin‘ - ‘ell”. Thank John in the mastering room for refusing to cut it.

Let It Be - recorded prior to Abbey Road but released after - further chronicles the dissolution of the

unified group. The original idea was to fulfill the contractual obligation for a final film as a  

documentary. The tensions are palpably obvious, particularly if you consider these have to be the remainders after edits. Phil Spector was hired to produce - I would guess by John - but if you can find the Glyn Johns mix (released on vinyl as Kum Back): listen! The bright spots are when they just play together, and the brilliant rooftop concert at the end:            

Opening with a rehearsal of Get Back, they proceed with Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got a Feeling, One After 909, I Dig a Pony, and then close with Get Back. The lagniappe shots of swarms of people on the street, climbing out windows, and swivel-necking up at the sound contribute to the magic. When the police arrive - as planned, no doubt - to shut them down, Lennon closes with his inimitable “I’d to to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition”.

No one dreamed they’d ever record again, after the acrimony of Let it Be, but everyone rose to the occasion when they asked George Martin to produce once more on Abbey Road (originally titled Everest). George Harrison is incandescent, illuminating the songwriter within, on Something and Here Comes the Sun; John’s Come Together and I Want You (She’s so Heavy) bookend side one of the album; Paul’s Oh Darling is a full on, balls out screamer (for the week of recording he would arrive at the studio before anyone, to howl out the vocal and achieve the desired abrasion). But the genius is the songs, snippets and remnants from India edited together to form the medley culminating in The End. Beginning with John’s ethereal Because (based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), it segues into Paul’s You Never Give Me Your Money, then ping pong from John (Sun King, Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam) to Paul (She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers), to close with The End - a sardonic jam with dueling guitar solos (3!) and a drum solo from Ringo - under duress. And it ends, as it must:

                        And in the end, the love you take - is equal to the love you make.

And then - because they are the Beatles - after twenty seconds of silence, McCartney’s bizarrely edited, irreverent snippet Her Majesty.

    Damn. I think I’ll put this in the OD player for the next several weeks.

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