Dear Prudence: John’s beautiful dreamer…

The song represents an aspect of Beatle songwriting that emerged on the White Album: the album is filled with songs that offer carefully observed portraits of characters real and imagined along with relevant social commentary…

“Dear Prudence is me. Written in India. A song about Mia Farrow’s sister, who seemed to go slightly barmy, meditating too long, and couldn’t come out of the little hut that we were livin’ in….  That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first. What I didn’t know was I was already cosmic.” – John Lennon

Prudence Farrow (far left, dark hair) with the Beatles and Maharishi in India (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

The Beatles famously went to India in February of 1968 to study transcendental meditation. While they didn’t necessarily reach nirvanic enlightenment (hence John’s bit of waggery in the above comment), they wrote many of the songs that appeared in November 1968 on the epic double album The Beatles known as “the White Album”). Among these is “Dear Prudence,” John’s tune about his, George’s, and Paul’s attempts to coax Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, from her hut where she had become “addicted to meditation.”

The song is notable for a couple of reasons. One is that John learned a finger picking style from Donovan who was also on the retreat and “Dear Prudence” is the first song where one hears John’s newly developed skill. The second reason is that the song represents an aspect of Beatle songwriting that emerged on the White Album: the album is filled with songs that offer carefully observed portraits of characters real and imagined along with relevant social commentary such as “Back in the USSR,” “Bungalow Bill,” “Martha, My Dear,” “Julia,” Piggies,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Honey Pie,” and “Cry, Baby, Cry,”

“Dear Prudence” is perhaps the loveliest and kindest of these portraits. Continue reading

The Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back”: mood is everything

Sometimes a song simply resonates with some inner mood that is part of our existential selves. “I’ll Be Back” is that kind of song for me.

“A nice tune, though the middle is a bit tatty.” John Lennon

John Lennon (image courtesy Beatles Bible)

“I’ll Be Back” would be right at home on Rubber Soul. This early masterpiece of moody vulnerability is one of my top three favorite Beatle songs, and I doubt that John would be as dismissive of the song if he had the gift of retrospect.

The unusual structure of the song (no chorus but two bridges) is part of its fascination. Its intro also shifts from major to minor chords, a striking chord shift that at least one later rock icon noticed (that same chord shift is a feature in more than one Kurt Cobain song).

Like other songs Lennon wrote during what he called his “Dylan period” (the spring/summer of 1964 through Rubber Soul in late 1965 – other examples are “I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), “I’ll Be Back” is introspective bordering on confessional. Unlike those other songs I mentioned, however, “I’ll Be Back” is less critical, more wistful and wishful than pained. Continue reading

Some wasted words about Gregg Allman

By blending rock and roll, soul, country, blues, and jazz, the Allmans created a brand of music that nearly 50 years later sounds as fresh and original as it did when it first appeared.

“I ain’t no saint, and you sure as hell ain’t no savior… Don’t ask me to be Mr. Clean, cause Baby I don’t know how….” – Gregg Allman, “Wasted Words”

The original Allman Brothers Band, Gregg on the left in the middle row (image courtesy Fanart.tv)

Gregg Allman’s death Saturday of liver cancer brought to a close the colorful, tragic story of the group more responsible than any other for creating the genre known as Southern Rock.

Duane Allman brought jazz and rock and roll to the table (and his work with R&B and soul artists led to his bringing drummer Jaimoe Johnson to the band who added jazz style drumming). Drummer Butch Trucks and guitarist Dickey Betts came to the band from more conventional rock bands, though they brought with them a bassist, Berry Oakley, who quickly grasped Duane Allman’s vision of a band playing soul/R&B inflected blues rock with twinges of country and extended improvisations in jazz style.

But they needed a singer. Gregg Allman, who’d steeped himself in soul and R&B as well as rock and blues, provided that. He also became the band’s main songwriter.  Continue reading

Strawberry Fields Forever… and ever… amen

“No one I think is in my tree…” John Lennon

“Strawberry Fields” shouldn’t work – but it does. Brilliantly. The intriguing question is – why?

John Lennon (image courtesy 100.7 KOOL FM)

Adulthood is all mixed up, as almost everyone reading this knows. Not that childhood isn’t all mixed up, too, but in childhood we find coping mechanisms. It can be as simple as finding one’s happy place and going there.

John knew this. He also knew how important that finding coping mechanisms is for us.

“Strawberry Fields Forever,” arguably his finest song as a Beatle, is about remembering. Remembering had become a favorite lyrical theme for John (“In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl”). An equally important theme, and one that John sometimes explored in tandem with the remembering theme, is differentness, especially differentness in how one looks at the world (“Rain,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “She Said She Said”).

It is that combination of those themes – remembering and differentness – that makes “Strawberry Fields Forever” the masterpiece it is.  Continue reading

The End…is all about the love….

St. Paul and Sir Paul were trying to tell me pretty much the same thing as I said goodbye to someone I loved very much and will miss for the rest of my life.

“And in the end the love you take
Is equal to the love you make…” – Paul McCartney

And in the end… (image courtesy Wikimedia)

My favorite uncle died a few days ago.

Rational, objective description sometimes is inadequate to explain people. Any such description of my Uncle Carl would use terms such as hard-working, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, tough-minded, straight-ahead.

Such a guy would not seem to be one who would inspire an outpouring of love and affection from large numbers of people. But Uncle Carl did. His visitation was packed and went on well past its scheduled two hour period. His funeral, a rite held in the Friends (Quaker) church he attended (his decision to join the Friends late in his life probably also seems anomalous given the above description) was a love fest of expressions of love and affection for a hard-working, plain-speaking, no-nonsense guy. Continue reading

“We Can Work It Out”: that wonderful harmonium

Not enough songs make use of the harmonium.

“In ‘We Can Work It Out,’ Paul did the first half, I did the middle eight. But you’ve got Paul writing, ‘We can work it out, we can work it out’ – real optimistic, y’know, and me impatient: ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.'” – John Lennon

I have reached a conclusion. Not enough songs make use of the harmonium.  Some may find this conclusion baseless. They would be mistaken.

Take, for example, “We Can Work It Out.” One side of the Beatles’ first “Double A side” single (b/w “Day Tripper”), it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, partly because of that harmonium John added to the track. One of them (John or Paul) spotted a harmonium in a corner of one of the studios at Abbey Road and John suggested that they add it to “We Can Work It Out.”

The result is a song with a feel that reminds one of a French cafe. A suggestion from George, the time change from 4/4 to 3/4 time adds a lilting quality. Combined with the harmonium sounding much like an accordion – in a French cafe – the effect suggests a chanteur working – it’s Paul channeling his inner Jacques Brel and John enabling him with that damned wonderful harmonium sound.  Continue reading

Don’t Pass Me By… because everybody loves Ringo….

“Don’t Pass Me By” is a rollicking faux country blues honk and the fiddle part is as crazy as Ringo says. It’s charming, funny, and totally Ringo. For a first effort, it’s pretty impressive.

“It was great to get my first song down, one that I had written. It was a very exciting time for me and everyone was really helpful, and recording that crazy violinist was a thrilling moment.” – Ringo Starr

Ringo around the time of the White Album (image courtesy Drummerworld)

There’s that scene from Family Guyof course. Ringo comes into the studio and informs his band mates that he’s written a song. John, Paul, and George talk sweetly and encouragingly to him, then take his lyrics and stick them on the refrigerator (as one might for a kindergartner).

Seth MacFarlane’s snark about Ringo’s talents is part of the long history of criticisms that have been leveled at Ringo over the years; the running gag has always been that Ringo is the luckiest guy in the history of rock. While his acting ability has received praise, Ringo’s musical ability has been knocked repeatedly – and as a songwriter, he’s sometimes been treated by critics as he is in MacFarlane’s cartoon.

Perhaps that is what makes “Don’t Pass Me By” so interesting in retrospect. As a first song, and it was his first, it’s got charm – and goofiness. In other words, it’s pure Ringo. Continue reading

Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.

“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies

John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”

John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)

That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry”  gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.

All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo – subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as  the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary). Continue reading

In My Life: Lennon remembers…

There’s something Shakespearean about Lennon’s meditation on life and meaning.

“I think ‘In My Life’ was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out. I think ‘In My Life’ was after In His Own Write… But he said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?’ Which came out later as ‘Penny Lane’ from Paul – although it was actually me who lived in Penny Lane – and Strawberry Fields.”  – John Lennon

Outtake for the Rubber Soul album cover (image courtesy “Yer Doin’ Great”

The marvelous Beatles Bible offers four John Lennon quotes about the composition of “In My Life.” Lennon considered it one of his most important songs for several reasons. It was the first song, he says, written about his life – the result, Lennon told multiple interviewers, of a comment by British journalist Kenneth Allsopp concerning Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write.

Another concern Lennon has was his ability to write melodies – something that his writing partner, Paul, was and is particularly adept at. “In My Life” is predominantly John’s melody (though he says Paul wrote the middle eight). Continue reading

Love Me Do – the first one…

“Love Me Do” was their first song, but it was far from perfect…

“‘Love Me Do’ is Paul’s song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Let me think. I might have helped on the middle eight, but I couldn’t swear to it. I do know he had the song around, in Hamburg, even, way, way before we were songwriters.” – John Lennon

“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written. It might have been my original idea but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.” – Paul McCartney

John, Paul, George, and Ringo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We know now (at least those of us who are American) that it was their first.

Most of us learned about it in that tidal wave of spring 1964 when it seemed that the Beatles released a new record every week. Many of them were fantastic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” It seemed like an endless stream of great song after great song, the releases of new singles coming sometimes only a week apart thanks to the Beatles’ tangled history of American deals.

So it was Tollie, a Vee-Jay subsidiary, that released “Love Me Do” in the US in April 1964.   Continue reading

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

One chord can change your life.

The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)

“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)

“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)

“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)

They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America. Continue reading

Good Day Sunshine…ah, spring, when one’s fancy turns to…

Songs like “Good Day Sunshine” indicate that the wit and whimsy that originally endeared the Beatles to millions would not disappear.

“It was really very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream,’ the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel. That was our favourite record of theirs. ‘Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream.’ John and I wrote it together at Kenwood, but it was basically mine, and he helped me with it.” – Paul McCartney (as told to Barry Miles)

John and Paul (image courtesy People magazine)

Ah, spring, sweet spring. The sun shines, trees and flowers begin to blossom. It feels great to go outside. It also feels like weather for, as John Sebastian urges us in the song Paul refers to above, “blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun.

Great Britain is not a sunny place. The warm waters of the Atlantic coming north from Africa mingle with the cool air of Great Britain’s northerly latitude and produce the fog for which the island is justly famous as well as clouds and rain. Lots of rain. John even wrote a song about it. Sunshine, as you’d guess in such a climate, is prized.

The summer of 1966, when the Fabs were working on the songs for what has been called at times their greatest album, Revolver, was exceptional for being sunny and hot.

Paul found that inspiration. As he did The Lovin’ Spoonful song. Continue reading

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.

Check that.

What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading

No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.

Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”

This was going to be another essay.

I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.”  But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.

“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that. Continue reading

Rolling Stones

I Wanna Be Your Man…Beatles or Stones?

If what Lennon says is true, “I Wanna Be You Man” has a special place in rock history.

“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” – John Lennon

Ringo during his Jean Paul Belmondo look period (image courtesy Pinterest)

Ringo sporting his Jean Paul Belmondo look (image courtesy Pinterest)

The composers of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thought so little of the “Ringo song” on the British release With the Beatles (the American release came on Meet the Beatles) that they “gave” the song to the Rolling Stones who released it as their second single.

Neither John nor Paul thought much of the song, though it’s a nifty Beat music rave-up. Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” from the same period, is a song of the same sort – much more familiar to (and popular with) the casual Beatles fan, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” has its own charm. As a tune it hearkens to the early days and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Cavern shows in its rowdiness and “cellar full of noise” jocular machismo. Continue reading

I Want to Hold Your Hand…and then, America….

It was the first Beatles record I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song.

“We wrote a lot of stuff together, one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u… got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that – both playing into each other’s nose.” – John Lennon

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’d heard “She Loves You” in the fall of 1963, and, while the buddy I first heard it with (a story I have related before) mocked the song (as did the deejay who introduced it), I’d been immediately smitten, though I diplomatically kept my opinion to myself. Thereafter, when I listened to far away radio stations in big cities like Chicago and New York on my transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, I listened for “She Loves You.”

I think I may have heard it twice between that first time and the advent of what we know as Beatlemania. I freely admit that my memory of this period is fuzzy. I was in my 12th year and between the time I first heard “She Loves You” in mid-November and when I began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs November 22, 1963 happened. Like most Americans I walked around in a dull daze  for a while, so I hope I may be forgiven for an imperfect memory of the timeline of events. Continue reading

George Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me…and then there were three….

And so The Beatles acquired a third great songwriter…

“‘Don’t Bother Me’ I wrote in a hotel in Bournemouth, where we were playing a summer season in 1963, as an exercise to see if I could write a song. I was sick in bed.” – George Harrison

George Harrison, 'A Hard Day's Night' period (image courtesy imdb.com)

George Harrison, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ period (image courtesy imdb.com)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney have long been ranked among the premiere songwriters of the 20th century. That the pair both wrote for the same band is certainly a central element of the The Beatles’ standing in rock history.  Any band with two great songwriters is certainly very, very lucky.

As we all know, the Fabs didn’t have two great songwriters – they had three. The emergence of George Harrison’s songwriting talent only serves to reiterate that, as in so much of their lives and career,  The Beatles were winners of whatever history’s equivalent of the Powerball is.

George, who was given the moniker “the quiet Beatle,” might better have been denominated “the independent Beatle.” Because he was younger (and remember, Paul, and George got together when they were very young and Paul had to sell John on allowing George to join the band that eventually became THE band), his status was predicated on 1) his guitar playing (which was better than anyone’s, not excluding John or Paul) and 2) his absolute commitment to the cause (which equaled John’s and Paul’s). Continue reading

Election Day. #HopeTuesday. TunesDay.

Three videos for Election Day. Who do we want to be?

Some years ago Sean Kelly of The Samples penned what has to be the election day anthem. It acknowledges what we all know, it notes the reasons we have to abandon hope, and still it insists that we carry on.

It’s Election Day 2016. What choice will you make about the world you want to live in?

Carry on. (Lyrics below.)

Continue reading

#SNRGTR: Sam’s favorite guitar solos

Part 1 in a series.

SNR-GTRI’ll go first. And since it’s my idea, I’ll take the editor’s privilege and cheat a bit by giving you two solos instead of one.

Up first, we go back to 1974 and “Brighton Rock,” the lead track on Queen’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. The band’s first two releases had been relentlessly self-conscious in their forays into fantasy (check out “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” off Queen II for an illustration).

But SHA opens with a boot to the teeth, highlighted by a Brian May solo that I guess is an example of what William Miller in Almost Famous meant by “incendiary.” Just … damn. Continue reading