Monday, 1 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 14 (Top Five): Still celebrating 40 Years of The Beatles' White Album

And now for this week’s top five. We were so overwhelmed with the success of last week’s column celebrating the White Album (** see note) that we’ve decided to put together another ‘top five’ list of neglected tracks from the Beatles album that turned 40 last week:

(** Note – That’s ‘success’ in its loosest possible terms, naturally. To be perfectly  honest, a grand total of one of you emailed in saying how much you enjoyed the opening paragraph of our White Album article while listening to a newly purchased copy of said album – only to be turfed off the computer by an irate parent and moaned at for playing ‘that rubbish at such a bleeding high volume’. Thanks for that extra information there Lizzie and hope you have better success reading part two).

5) Martha, My Dear: Anyone who owns more than, say, two books on the Beatles with pictures will already know the ‘real’ Martha intimately, though perhaps not by name. For Martha was Paul McCartney’s old English Sheepdog, bought during the early phase of the Beatles’ recording career and who stood at Paul’s side throughout the Beatles’ break up, Wings and a good portion of Macca’s solo career. You know the saying that all pets look like their owners after a time? Well, Paul only ever had hair as shaggy as his pet in the 1970 period, but to photographers Martha was every bit as photogenic as her master and seemed to appear in pretty much every ‘informal’ pic taken of the Beatle when he was off duty from recording or performing. This song is, however, the only time she seems to have inspired Paul to write about her in his work.  

The fact that this song was written for an English Sheepdog has rather undermined its value in the mind of scholarly Beatlenuts. But in truth it’s a fine song, full of dramatic twists and turns between chorus and verses that shouldn’t go together but somehow do (Macca manages to outdo even this example of the genre on his first solo single ‘Another Day’ by the way). Like many of Mccartney’s unheralded ‘story songs’, it’s a forgotten classic that tells us almost nothing about McCartney’s thought process a la most of Lennon’s late 60s songs and absolutely nothing about his beliefs and spiritual request a la Harrison. In the song Martha is not a sheepdog but the narrator’s ex and – unlike Lennon’s stinging attacks on supposed past girlfriends in song – he still feels warmly about her, worried not about his own feelings but the idea that Martha might forget him and all the good times they had together. Macca probably never meant this song to have any relevance to his own life – but dig deeper behind this song’s sweet little tune and you can see more than a touch of Paul’s relationship with actress Jane Asher here. The pair were in the process of splitting up during the White Album sessions despite announcing their engagement as late as Christmas 1967 – his new partner Linda Eastman was already part of his life, meeting the other Beatles for the first time at the recording session for ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. Does this account for this song’s sweet but sad nostalgia and its bittersweet feeling of changes on the horizon, even though the narrator doesn’t sound overly sad at losing the first love of his life?  

4) Glass Onion: This track was born for analytical Beatle anoraks like me. In fact, this song is Lennon’s spoof of all monkeynuts collectors who tried to see things in the Beatles’ work that their four composers never intended to be there. After teasing us with oodles of rare references to past Beatle songs (Lucy in the sky, walruses played by Paul, Strawberry Fields – ‘the place where nothing is real’ etc) Lennon gives a musical giggle and tells us that all these ideas just peel away to nothing when you analyse them – that they are just a ‘glass onion’. In its original demo form (as heard on Anthology Three) this is a jokey song more in the style of Bungalow Bill than the Helter Skelter-ish recording we got on the White Album. So why the change? Was Lennon just in a particularly angry mood that day, did he think the recording would never work in its original acoustic-meets-sound effects demo form (though it sounds pretty fine to me) or is he fanning the flames, making us think there’s more to this song than there really is? Whatever the intention, ‘Glass Onion’ is a fascinating mystery, full of inside-jokes like ‘the cast iron shore’ (which is really a rather messy and shingle-filled beach on Merseyside) and ‘bent back tulips’ (a table decoration favoured by one of Lennon’s friends, who bent back the stems of tulips for table decorations) which Lennon had been trying to shoe-horn into a song for years. No other Lennon song is such a wonderful catch-all of gibberish (we’ve already covered the reasons why ‘I Am The Walrus’ isn’t gibberish several times on this website – see review no 99 for more and I could stake a claim to the same for ‘I Dig A Pony’ too) and yet so urgent is the music and so dynamic the performance, it still feels that there’s some hidden meaning to this song – even though Lennon categorically stated several times that the whole point of this song is that there isn’t a point to it at all.

3) Yer Blues: Similarly, is this a genuine cry from the heart or a pastiche of all the American blues 78s that Lennon and McCartney used to collect in the 1950s? Almost a prototype for the ‘primal scream therapy’ songs that Lennon will follow in 1970, this is an early example of the Beatles returning to basics after their psychedelic sojourn, recorded by all four members playing in a broom cupboard. Although written at the Maharishi’s in India, with first wife Cynthia by his side, this song has Yoko Ono’s fingerprints all over it and is the other side of the coin to ‘Revolution Nine’s complexity. Yoko’s early work is all about simplicity, about stripping away an idea back to its core to extract the essence from it, and these ideas really began to strike a chord with the former rocker Lennon after he got to know the Japanese artist better. Stupidly transparent as it is, there is no substitute in the whole of the Beatles’ canon for the chill you get down your spine when Lennon yells into a deliberately broken-down, muffled microphone ‘Yes I’m lonely, wanna die’ (although the opening to the similarly Yoko-like ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ runs it close). Lennon’s later response to this song is also fascinating. When asked about individual Beatles songs, John was almost always 50: 50 split between declaring them works of genius and some of the worst hack songs ever produced in modern music. To the best of my knowledge he never ever staked a claim to ‘Yer Blues’ being great, which suggests he saw it as a throwaway – but the work chimes in well with lennon’s immediate post-Beatles work and it was one of his few Beatles compositions to be revived in concert (at the Rolling Stones Circus jamathon, with Mitch Mitchell on drums, Keith Richards on bass and Eric Clapton on guitar – if that line up’s just made your mouth water I strongly recommend you to look out for the DVD).   

2) Dear Prudence: Casual Beatles fans may be surprised to learn that Mia Farrow was part of the Beatles party staying at the Maharishi’s camp in India to learn about meditation. Many of them will also be stunned at the revelation that this song was written for Mia’s sister Prudence, another visitor to the camp who was rather deeper into her meditation than most of the followers there (most of whom seemed to treat the experience as akin to staying at boarding school, given the comments that have come out since). Prudence spent two whole days meditating in her tent while the Beatles were there, taking no meals and not even seeing her sister.

John Lennon, caught between his very genuine belief in the Maharishi and his naturally short attention span, was already in two minds about the whole experience by the time he came to write this song to coerce Prudence out of her tent to be with the others. In ‘Dear Prudence’ you can hear the Beatle wondering out loud whether having such a large devotion to any belief system is good for you – and yet all the things he uses to coerce Prudence out of her shell are natural and not manmade – ‘the sun is up, the sky is blue’. Along with almost everything else the Beatles learnt during their stay in India, folk singer and fellow Maharishi devotee Donovan thinks the fab four learnt everything they know from him (conveniently forgetting that he adopted a much more ‘Beatlesy’/ ‘White Album’ sound after their meeting, not before). But this track is perhaps the strongest candidate for having Donovan’s fingerprints all over it – it’s certainly not like Lennon’s usual work, which either celebrates life indirectly by using surreal imagery or grumpily dismisses it and everybody in it.

Lennon sounds genuinely happy in this recording, even though it was recorded at the worst of times – not least because the Beatles had fallen out with the Maharishi after some unproved and probably false allegations of misconduct, causing Lennon to write one of his most scathing songs, ‘Sexy Sadie’, especially for his former ‘guru’. All the other songs Lennon wrote in India, however pretty they sounded as demos, had also turned into biting snarling rockers by the time they ended up on record (‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘…Me And My Monkey’) or ended up sounding dead depressed (all the above plus ‘Julia’). Yet intriguingly Lennon never changed a note of this song despite his bad experiences. Another reason for sounding unhappy was the fact that only three Beatles appear on this track – along with ‘Back In The USSR’ it was recorded when a depressed Ringo had walked out on his band, unsure of his future with three bitching colleagues who no longer felt like a ‘team’. When the band recorded ‘Dear Prudence’ (with Paul doing most of the drumming), they weren’t to know that Ringo would change his mind and rejoin them after just a week – at the time of this song, they very genuinely thought they’d have to break the news to the world that at least one member of the most famous band on the planet was about to leave. How ironic that the band chose to record this lovely song in Ringo’s absence- the epitome of the optimism, companionship and sheer magic that the drummer felt had gone out of the Beatles forever at that point.    

1) Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey: Nobody ever mentions this Lennon rocker, not because they think it’s particularly bad but simply because they don’t understand it. Surely the creator of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ couldn’t write a song with a chorus as banal as ‘the higher you fly the deeper you go, so come on’? Well, ‘Monkey’ is exactly the sort of song you can take as lightly or as deeply as you want. Like many a sloganeering solo Lennon track (‘Power To The People’ is the best fit, though ‘Give Peace A Chance’ fits too), this song has a chorus made as simple as possible for people to follow, but some of the other lyrics are pretty complex both to sing and to understand, as Lennon tries to solve the complex problems of a complex world by getting us all to sing along with a catchy, memorable chorus line. Let’s take a look at that title for a start – it has no lyrical relevance to the rest of the song and its very noticeable paranoia seems at odds with the happy-go-lucky recording of the song. But could it be that Lennon is talking to us here about that very difficult bridge he felt between his simple work and his complex work? Everybody else has something to hide, says Lennon, but ‘me and my monkey’ – we are ‘free’, are not afraid of hiding our true selves or copying our former styles like so many of our compatriots and – despite a number of in-jokes and made-up-on-the-spot-ditties – the White Album is as ‘honest’ and revealing an album as the Beatles ever made. Nasty reviewers who should know better sometimes say that lennon is laughing at his muse Yoko here, likening her to a performing monkey, but I think this song is actually a sly dig at Lennon’s band and how, when they appear in the public eye, they could be labelled ‘performing monkeys’. This is the big brave sarcastic new look 1968 John Lennon recovering the wit he’d buried under three years of heavy drug taking, ready to leave his wife for Yoko, record experimental albums with himself naked on the front cover and become a general pain in the neck for all authority figures he came up against, just as he had been back in the very early Beatle days. He may not have come up with many lyrics to go with his message, but for Lennon this is announcement to the world that he will no longer play ball with anyone anymore and the note-perfect Beatles backing track – with all four members playing in the same room for once on this album – is marvellously urgent, with Paul’s rattled cow bell perfectly setting the tone.

Well, that’s it for another week. More news, views, reviews, muses, recluses, apple juices and quite possibly mooses in next week’s newsletter. Thanks for reading!    

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