Friday, 31 July 2015

Under The Influence: Bob Dylan (Again)

America should put up statues to the Beatles. They helped give this country's pride back to it.

Bob Dylan Q: Howard Sounes: Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan (p.203)

Lest we go too overboard here's a counterbalance

[Sgt. Pepper was] a very indulgent album...though the songs on it were real good. I didn't think all that production was necessary

Bob Dylan Q: Howard Sounes: Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan (p.270)

Here's Dylan singing Yesterday in 1970

To find out what Dylan thinks of Paul McCartney check this out and read more about Dylan's influence on the Beatles here and here

More artists who love the Beatles here


Friday, 24 July 2015

The Beatles In Rishikesh

I'm working up a new set of posts on Mother Nature's Son. Meanwhile here's some cool, and rare home movie footage from the place where that and many other White Album songs were written; Rishikesh, India.


Friday, 17 July 2015

Ticket 71: Write A Parody

In modern parlance parody has come to mean 'a comedic take on an existing song' - singing new words to the same tune and often taking potshots at the original creator or theme. But in a wider sense any new work of art built on the musical or poetic structure of an existing work is a parody. So, for example, you could write deadly serious lyrics with the rhyme scheme and structure taken from a poem. Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun) is a parody of traditional love poetry forms. The hymn Love Divine All Loves Excelling (Charles Wesley) is a parody of King Arthur (Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling) by John Dryden - a poem celebrating sexual freedom. You can also parody musical styles (sometimes referred to as pastiche).

This is a great way to push yourself out of your default patterns.

Back In The USSR
Happiness Is A Warm Gun (Doo Wop style in final section)


I Got A Woman (Ray Charles) – A love song in a stylistic parody of gospel music
The Elements (Tom Lehrer) – The Major-General's Song (Gilbert and Sullivan)
Sowing The Seeds Of Love (Tears For Fears) – stylistic parody of The Beatles!

Weird Al Yankovic is the master of parody. Compare the following tracks to the originals to appreciate his skill in matching phrasing, rhyme schemes etc

A Complicated Song (Complicated - Avril Lavigne)
Jerry Springer (Two Weeks – Barenaked Ladies)
Ode To A Superhero (Piano Man – Billy Joel)
The Saga Begins (American Pie – Don McClean)
White And Nerdy (Ridin Dirty - Chamillionaire)
Word Crimes (Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke)

See also

Serious Like Weird Al (pt.2)

Ticket 19: Different Bar Blues
Ticket 33: Subvert A 12 Bar Blues By Altering The Chord Sequence
Ticket 34: Disguise A 12 Bar Blues Song By Avoiding The AAB Lyric Structure

See the full list of songwriting tips here - Tickets To Write


Friday, 10 July 2015

The Great White Experiment

The Beatles really began to depart from their general working practices during The White Album sessions. It's striking how experimental they got, especially when you remember this is the album they did the most preproduction on.

The sessions began on 30th May 1968, 11 days after Lennon recorded Two Virgins and hooked up with Yoko, with a 10 minute version of Revolution which, when split up, evolved into Revolution(s) 1 and 9.

The Beatles increasingly recorded multiple versions of songs. Revolution was rerecorded on 9-11th July and released as a single, almost the only time the Beatles released two completely different versions of the same song*. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was attempted three times, between July and September, Sexy Sadie was recorded twice, and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da three times with the second version making the cut.

It was also rare for the Beatles to abandon songs, but Lennon's What's The New Mary Jane was recorded, then shelved, and George Harrison's Not Guilty was scrapped after a legendary 101 takes.

Around this time the Beatles really began embracing mistakes. When Paul accidentally sang “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face” in Ob-La-Di they decided to leave it in, as they did with George and John ad-libs "Desmond lets the children lend a hand...arm...leg" (1:42 and also 2:33). They also left in the howling coda in Long Long Long inspired by the sound of a wine bottle rattling on top of the Leslie speaker.

The experiments didn't end there. Birthday was written entirely on the spot in studio, Wild Honey Pie was spontaneously recorded during the Mother Nature's Son session (it was labelled 'Ad-Lib' on the master tape) and McCartney recorded 9 semi-improvised takes of Rocky Racoon laying down his vocals live with band.

Driven crazy by the mundane surroundings of Abbey Road the Beatles had already started to experiment with other studios during Magical Mystery Tour. Lured by 8 track machines or because Abbey Road was fully booked; Hey Jude, Dear Prudence, Martha My Dear, Honey Pie and Savoy Truffle were all recorded at least in part at Trident Studios. But even within Abbey Road they moved around. McCartney recorded the drums for Mother Nature's Son in a corridor and the whole band squeezed into a small room next to Studio 2 to cut Yer Blues.

Though from the earliest days addition musicians appeared on the recordings, from George Martin and classical soloists to friends and family, Eric Clapton's appearance on While My Guitar Gently Weeps marks the highest profile guest.

The view that the White Album was a glorified solo album is highly debatable but there was a high degree of fragmentation at this time evidenced by the fact that Harrison, Starr and George Martin all felt at liberty to take holidays during work on the album and that Starr and engineer Geoff Emerick both quit. Even when everyone was around they were often working simultaneously in different rooms at Abbey Road.


It's debatable how beneficial all this experimentation was. On the one hand it undoubtedly resulted in some better versions of the songs. But the openendedness of the process, itself a response to creative and personal frustrations in the band, clearly helped to further damage already fragmented relationships between band members and production staff. George Martin's desired to create a really strong single album might have been a healthier way to go. Pre Sgt Pepper, the band had always alternated intense periods in the studio with touring. From '67 onwards their lives became pretty much a never ending recording session.

*Love Me Do (with and without drummer Andy White) and Sie Liebt Dich (She Loves You) were completely different recordings though very much the same arrangements. Across The Universe and Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand (I Want To Hold Your Hand) are radically different versions built on the same basic recordings.


Friday, 3 July 2015

10:44 Yer Blues (pt. 2) Renewing The Blues

According to John Lennon Yer Blues (like I'm So Tired) was part of the “last batch of best songs”* he wrote with the Beatles, even though he also viewed it as a self-conscious attempt at Blues that bordered on parody.

All four members squeezed into “a room about eight by eight, with no separation” next door to the control room to lay down the basic track. So it's probably no surprise such unfriendly working conditions produced such a horrible sounding, badly-played track. Paul is using a Fender Jazz Bass for once but his leaden playing sound like early Alice Cooper at his most witless, George & John's solo are both saddled with super-wobbly 'wasp-in-a-jam-jar' tones. Even the tape edit at 3:17 is obvious and brutal, hacking into the '12 bar' sequence after 10 1/2 bars to splice in an earlier take ruined by clearly audible guide vocals bleeding all over the drum track. Only Ringo escapes with honour, skilfully navigating the time changes like Keith Moon with a restraining order.

But despite the recording and performance being well under-par there's a lot of interesting things in the songwriting itself.

New Blues Hues

One of the biggest challenges in doing blues is to do something new fresh with a well worn, constricted and predictable form.

Lennon tackles this head on by

  • Augmented a straight 4/4 or shuffle with odd time signatures and tempo changes (see the previous post
  • Departing from the stock 12 bar chord progressions
  • Substituting cosmically existential, and wittily referential, lyrics for the usual gritty 'here and now' everyday problems

As for chords, a standard blues turnaround in E would be

B7 | A | E | B7

Lennon's turnaround is essentially

G | B7 | E A | E B7

While the lasts two bars are a common substitution, flipping B7 for G and then switching the A with B7 really takes the blues in a new direction (literally, replacing the descending B7 to A with the ascending G to B7).

Lyircally, when people 'wanna die' in the blues, it's usually because of unfaithful partners and bad business deals (plus the occasional brush with the devil at the crossroads). Lennon takes things to a whole new level with lines like

My mother was of the sky
My father was of the earth
But I am of the universe
And you know what it's worth

Note this is the second white album song that is written for Yoko, about Lennon's mother, that mentions the sky.

My Mother was of the sky (Yer Blues)
Her hair of floating sky is shimmering (Julia)

Though it's slightly unusual for a blues to reference a song by another artist it's even rarer for the Beatles to quote anyone other than themselves.

Feel so suicidal just like Dylan's Mr Jones

is a reference to Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" from the Highway 61 Revisited album.

And Finally

Like most blues songs this doesn't use all 7 notes in the key (Ticket 40) and has a static melody over changing chords (usually the I and IV chord) (Ticket 48). The band stopping to emphasise lyrics (1:01) is also common but no less effective for it (Ticket 30)

The guitar lick that is the highpoint of every turnaround is a cool hook that is an irreplaceable part of the song (Ticket 3). Taken in isolation as triads it's

B – A – G#m – Gm – F#m.

If you're looking at it as upper part of the B chord it's

B – B11 – B6 sliding into B9.

*Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner (8 Dec 1970)


Monday, 29 June 2015

10:43 Yer Blues (pt. 1) John Got (No) Rhythm

...Or The Art Of The 12.333 Recurring Bar Blues

John was a brilliant rhythm guitarist, despite the fact that he didn't have any real sense of timing

Ringo Starr: Rolling Stone

I dig the people that notice that I have a sort of strange rhythm scene, because I've never been able to keep rhythm on the stage. I always used to get lost. It's me double off-beats

John Lennon: Rolling Stone

John Lennon was too much of a free spirit and had too short of an attention span to be locked down to anything as mundane as a time signature. And for someone like that the only options are to function largely as a solo artist (in the Robert Johnson/John Lee Hooker mould), where you're free to add or subtract beats as you feel, or hope you find a band charmed by your talents and technically able to follow and interpret your whims. Every rhythmical idiot savant needs a group of geniuses with the patience to spot and interpret his genius. In the Beatles Lennon found his perfect support group. Johnny Lennon and the Enablers would have been a great name for the band.

Yer Blues, like Happiness Is A Warm Gun, is an important song because it reveals what Lennon's maverick approach to counting could produce when indulged

The 'fake' count in reveals* Lennon envisioned the song as a very slow 12/8 time. Making it a 6 bar blues. But the 5th bar has two extra 8th notes

12/8   E | E | A | E |
14/8   G B7 |
12/8   E A E B7 |

How you subdivide that 5th bar is up for grabs – 6/8 and 8/8? 12/8 then 2/8? But the genesis is clear. Lennon's just delaying the next bar to allow the guitar lick and the vocal line to finish. This is the essence of the Lennon Extension (Ticket 52). There is a way to keep to 12/8 by slightly overlapping the guitar and vocals. And many bands would have forced their rhythmically challenged singer into it. But all credit to the Beatles for having the guts to their wayward genius be.

So if this is a 6 bar oddity, why does it feel like a 12 bar blues? Well, if you hear it as 6/8 instead of 12 you can immediately see the standard progression take shape.

6/8   E | E | E | E |
6/8   A | A | E | E |
6/8   G |
8/8   B7 |
6/8   E A | E B7 |

Four bars on the tonic (I) chord two on the subdominant (IV) back to the tonic for two (I) then a four bar turnaround. Replace G - B7 with B7 - A and lose the rhythmic shenanigans and we could be playing any of a million blues songs. As it is Lennon adds a 3rd of a bar making this a 12 and 1/3 bar blues, or if you prefer 12.333 recurring bar blues.

In the 3rd and 4th verses Lennon introduces more rhythmic weirdness. The first four bars (sticking to our 12 bar template) switch to double time. Millions of songs double (or halve) time with no sense of crunching gear change.

So 1  +  2  +   3  +  4  +

becomes 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

but in 12/8 or 6/8 each beat is divided into three

1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 + a

so the new double-time beat is falling in between the + and the 'a'. This makes the switch from one to the other very tricky to pull off - kudos to Ringo here who uses his fills in bar four to ease the band back into the half time feel of bars 5-12. In the 5th verse the band never switches back, remaining at the double-time tempo right through the solos.

All this makesYer Blues an important song for using polyrhythms (Ticket 29) and changing time signatures between sections (Ticket 15).


The Ocean by Led Zeppelin has a number of things in common with this song.

  • Odd time signatures
  • A change in feel to straight ahead shuffle after a very noticeable tape edit
  • A reference to old timey music connected with the shuffle (Lennon: “Even hate my rock and roll” Plant: “Doo-wop be dooby dooby”)
  • Ending in a fade out (rare for Zep – very rare for Beatles)
  • A vocal count in

* Lennon's count in is the third fake one we've come across – both I Saw Her Standing There and Taxman have count-ins spliced in from different takes just for effect.

More on Yer next time...


Monday, 22 June 2015

For Yer Blues

Was [Yer Blues] deliberately meant to be a parody of the English blues scene?

John Lennon: Well, a bit. I'm a bit self-conscious — we all were a bit self-conscious and the Beatles were super self-conscious people about parody of Americans which we do and have done. I know we developed our own style but we still in a way parodied American music... there was a self-consciousness about singing blues. We were all listening to Sleepy John Estes and all that in art school, like everybody else. But to sing it was something else.

Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner (8 Dec 1970)