I have six months to reshape my life. I can do this.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Great Beatles Songs: A Hard Day's Night

On to #3 on the great songs list. For those of you who want to continue to question the greatness of Lennon/McCartney as a songwriting force, this song will put an end to your doubts.

The third greatest Beatles song is A Hard Day's Night. The Fabs had finished filming their first of three motion pictures. They had never really settled on a name while they were working on it. It was tentatively titled The Beatles Movie until something more suitable would reveal itself as a title. The title would come from Ringo's abuse of the English language. Ringo's interesting phrase turns would play a large part in naming many songs (Tomorrow Never Knows from REVOLVER and Eight Days a Week to name two).

This malapropism, or a "Ringoism," first appeared in Lennon's book In His Own Write: "He'd had a hard day's night that day." When John, George and Paul were recounting to producers of the movie stories about Ringo, they told the origin in that phrase, "a hard day's night." It came from a grueling late-night gig. But the producers settled on A Hard Day's Night as their title. That phrase captured the hectic pace that the Beatles kept to a tee. But they knew they had to have a song. The producer Walt Shenson didn't want to ask any more from Paul and John as they had been going ninety to nothing night and day for months. He didn't want to burden them with more but he had to have a fast-paced title song to open the movie, he needed them to write A Hard Day's Night and he needed it to be a hit. Finally he approached John during a looping session for the movie. John, highly annoyed with the request, brooded and chain-smoked the rest of the evening before they left for home.

The next morning on the set, Shenson was paged to Lennon's dressing room. When Shenson arrived, Paul and John were standing there with their guitars. John fiddled with a match book cover which had the lyrics scrawled on it. They sang it and played it to perfection, ten hours after being requested to write it. A massive #1 hit on demand. It would be recorded the next day. John would carry the vocals with Paul singing the middle eight because it was too high for John's range.

From the sound of the extraordinary opening chord (a G7 with an added ninth and a suspended fourth, so unique it is considered neither major nor minor) which grabs your attention, to the double guitar and piano solo (contributed by George Martin) to the breakneck pace that finally gives way to Paul's almost relaxed middle eight in comparison, this musically daring song is still so full of energy over forty years later. And as soon as you hear George Harrison's unique opening chord, you know exactly what song it is. See? Proof of greatness. Not too many number one hits were written on demand in ten hours. But Lennon and McCartney did it. And Ringo even adds some nice cowbell.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Great Beatles Songs: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

On to #4 on the great Beatles songs list. This is a classic Harrison tune from The Beatles (more commonly known as The White Album).

The White Album was culled from a huge backlog of songs the Beatles had written in 1968, mostly in India. It would eventually be a double album of mostly finished songs. There are some true classics on The White Album. Blackbird, Back in the USSR, Obladi Oblada, Mother Nature's Son and Helter Skelter are some quality Paul tunes on The White Album. John and Paul also added Birthday. It is not the greatest album for John Lennon. He did have Dear Prudence and Julia. Also Revolution would see its first glimpse of daylight in these sessions. In fact this version on The White Album was the first recorded by the group. Paul and George insisted it be faster if they were to release it as a single. Eventually it would be the B side to Hey Jude. In my opinion John's best song writing days were behind him, at least as far as the Beatles were concerned. He had two or three more in him but his run of 64-67 was over. Paul was coming into his own as the singular voice and driving force of the Beatles. The White album also saw Ringo's first tune, Don't Pass Me By.

But this is the album where George establishes that he has finally arrived. And not only does he contribute the best song on the album with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, he has the savvy to invite Eric Clapton to the recording session to lay the searing guitar solos. The Beatles as a group were splintering in 1968. They spent their time fighting, screaming, quitting and rejoining and hating Yoko Ono. But they did make some great music. And when Clapton stopped by they were all on their best behavior. Paul plays the piano and John fills in on bass. George plays the rhythm.

Also if you pick up the Beatles anthology #3 you hear a great early demo of the song with just George playing on acoustic and singing by himself. That song itself is worth purchasing the third anthology (along with Paul's complete demo for Come and Get It for Badfinger). It is simply a classic. If you have not heard it, grab someone's copy of the White Album. Even marginal Beatles fans buy the album, confused it is not a greatest hits album. But on a mish mash like the White Album, the lone highlight is George Harrison's masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Great Beatles Songs: In My Life

We continue on to the top five on the great Beatles songs list. Number five is In My Life, John Lennon's great musical memoir from Rubber Soul. It was the first real soul-searching, reflective song that John wrote about his past.

It started out as a list of places he loved and remembered but that was not too compelling musically so it was adjusted to become just about the love in his life and where he had been and was at now. To this day it remains a great memories song.

The George Martin-contributed piano solo is also very interesting to me. The Beatles could not speak the language when it came to musical terminology. They did not have any formal training and could not read a note. But George Martin could and they developed a rapport, a language free of that theory jargon that would throw them off. "Give it color here," or "Make it punchier" would be what they would tell Martin. Who would then determine what they meant and make it happen.

With In My Life John had written an instrumental bridge between the verses. John told Martin to "play it like Bach." John wanted something "baroque-sounding." Martin wrote out a Bach two-part invention for piano. It was too fast for Martin to play it normally so he lowered the speed of the tape to half speed and then speeded it back up on playback. It was an engineering trick that allowed him to simulate a harpsichord.

In My Life stands out today as a premier song on a wonderful album. Rubber Soul was and is my favorite album of all time. It may not be the best (it is not Pepper or Revolver) but it is the most influential. Without Rubber Soul there wouldn't have been Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Without Pet Sounds there is no Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. So Rubber Soul stands as a classic rock album. One more song from the album appears later here at #2.

Give In My Life a listen today. It may be the finest Lennon composition on wax. Either that or number 4.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Great Beatles Songs: Here, There and Everywhere / Eleanor Rigby

Time for #7 AND #6 on the list of the Great Beatles Songs. These are straight up Paul McCartney and one of his finest, if not THE finest, silly love songs and his second masterpiece.

Here There and Everywhere

John outwardly hated Paul's penchant for writing "smoochy" material but confessed later to really admiring Here, There and Everywhere. Paul would write some of the greatest songs of all time but this was, in his own words, his "first complete song." He broke each verse down to start with the words here, there and everywhere. Brian Wilson himself has confessed that this is one of his favorite songs (with Paul returning the favor for God Only Knows).

This is classic McCartney and every cover pales in comparison. Paul faithfully performs this classic live every tour since 1989. Many songs John would help Paul touch up. HTE is all Paul.
George provides the interesting off play with the guitar. Just a great song that is often overlooked in the rundown of Revolver.

Eleanor Rigby
I have heard musical theorists say that this is the only perfect pop song ever written. The lyrics synch up and fit perfectly with the music. It started as an achingly haunting line of melody with Paul vamping on an E minor chord. "Ola Na Tungee / Blowing his mind in the dark / with a pipeful of clay" were the earliest lyrics that friend and fellow pop star Donovan remembers hearing when Paul showed up at his flat a few days later after first starting work on the song.

The lyric evolved to "Dazzie-de-da-zu/Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been."
It officially became Eleanor Rigby in March of 1966. Paul borrowed Eleanor from Eleanor Bron, their comely HELP! costar, with whom John had a fling, and paired it with Rigby from an old shop named Rigby and Amp in the Bristol dock area. He then took his nearly finished masterpiece to John for help polishing things and even Ringo contributed "darning his socks in the night." But George Martin would make the most significant contribution by scoring the song for a double string quartet: four violins, two violas and two cellos.

Both songs appear on Revolver, the album many consider to be the greatest album ever (check out VH-1's list of the 100 greatest albums of all time and it is #1 there). Revolver is great because it showcases Paul's musical daring and versatility. Paul provides the scorching guitar solo in George's place on Taxman to start the album off. John's drug-induced mantra Tomorrow Never Knows (Paul provided the tape loops that sound like birds and freaky guitar riffs on it - again, Paul proves his mettle doing something in the studio that had never been done before) closes the album. And in between those two great songs, Paul's finest collection of material appears. He may have had bigger hits but Revolver would prove to be his most complete and impressive collection of songs on any Beatles record. And the two highlights of the album? Here, There and Everywhere and Eleanor Rigby.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Great Beatles Songs: Something

Down to #8 in the great Beatles songs list. This finds the first of two George Harrison-penned songs. Something was inspired by the first line of James Taylor's Something in the Way She Moves. It would become released as a double A sided single with Come Together in England and would be the B side in America. It would also be Harrison's first #1 hit.

It is considered to be Harrison's masterpiece, a beautifully moving love song that even John, Paul and George Martin all considered to be remarkable. It was McCartney who would push for Something to be released as a single. For a while Harrison's material was album filler, not really in the same league as Lennon-McCartney tunes. But Harrison has four songs that stand out and alongside most Lennon-McCartney songs. Something is one of those three, along with Taxman, Here Comes the Sun and another song on this list, to be revealed later.

In its review of the album Abbey Road, Time magazine simply said Something was "the best song on the album." It was the first George song I really liked. It is also interesting to think that the woman who inspired this song also inspired Layla and Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton. Patty Boyd Harrison (Patty Clapton later on after she and Eric had an affair) appears in the Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night. That is where she and George met and would be married until she left him for Clapton. But George was not badly effected. He and Clapton would continue to be close friends. And George would have the last laugh at Eric's expense. He asked Patty and Eric to sing backup to Bye Bye Love on a later solo album in the 70's.

But in 1969 Something was one of the greatest Beatles songs. The fact that George was late coming to the party only means that for a few years in the late 60's and early 70's George wrote and performed some of the greatest songs ever. And it all started with the line, "Something in the way she moves..."