Classic Albums: Revolver, The Beatles (1966)

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It was April of 1966, and like Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changin’.”  Dylan himself had just gone electric, The Vietnam war was expanding, and along with it, numerous counter-culture movements among the youth.  The Beatles had released their first “adult” album, Rubber Soul, barely five months prior, with music critics blustering about teenagers listening to songs about lesbians and prostitutes while fellow contemporary musicians regarded it as a landmark achievement, an open invitation to write songs that weren’t just love songs.  Rubber Soul gets unfortunately labeled as a folk-rock album, and while it not might have reached the experimental heights of their later work, it’s certainly no Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This was amplified somewhat by the butchered American releases that would plague The Beatles until Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; gone was the Stax muscle of “Drive My Car,” Lennon’s emerging psychedelia on “Nowhere Man,” the country music ode of “What Goes On,” and perhaps most confusingly, Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” which channeled The Byrds electric folk-rock just then coming into form.  In its place were two previous UK releases, “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”  Looking back, the surprise of how much The Beatles advanced with Revolver was certainly helped by the “dumbing down” of the American product of Rubber Soul.

Music critics have a tough time deciding what changed popular music more; the release of Sgt. Pepper, or the magnum opus of psychedelic music, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Looking back almost 50 years later, it’s safe to say that no band, certainly not one in popular music circles, could attempt a track as experimental as this one without losing its audience.  For a song so devilishly complex in its creation, it could not have gone far without the unlimited technical ability of its creator.  George Martin would always fondly remember Lennon for his outlandish requests in the studio; he would wish a song “to sound orange” or, in the case of the later “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” he wanted “to smell the sawdust.”  Seeing as most of his requests were rewarded, mostly by technical innovation that always brought The Beatles more critical praise, Martin and the engineers at EMI always went to great lengths to accommodate Lennon’s abstract requests and bring them to recorded reality.

The stakes Lennon had set for “Tomorrow Never Knows” were absurd, even for his standards.  "I want to sound like I’m the Dalai Lama singing a chant from the mountain-top,“ Lennon said, insisting that the only reasonable way to accomplish the feat was to hang him upside down from a rope so he could swing around precariously over a microphone.  While Martin and Emerick sent out for the requisite rope they pleaded with Lennon to change his mind, surely they could find a reasonable solution that didn’t endanger the musician’s life.  It was the concept of a rotating Lennon that got Emerick’s attention.

The Leslie speaker, a loudspeaker that made use of the Doppler effect to manipulate the soundwave, had enjoyed immense success in the 1950’s as an integral part of many jazz organ trios, and had begun to make a resurgence on psychedelic records for its trademark whirling sound.  No one however, had thought to put a voice behind it.  Emerick quickly found a Leslie speaker cabinet in the studio and physically broke into the back to adjust the wiring for a microphone.  Lennon also tasked his bandmates with bringing in experimental tape loops for the song, at the time little more than a drone around C.  In the end, they would keep only McCartney’s contributions: (1) the haunting, seagull call (actually McCartney laughing through a tape recorder), (2) an extended note from Sibelius 7th Symphony in B flat, (3) a Mellotron (an early precursor to the synthesizer) on its flute setting reversed, (4) another Mellotron oscillating in 6/8 time from B flat to C on its string setting, and lastly (5) a rising scalar phrase on the sitar.  Starr’s contribution on drums can not be overlooked either, a cacophonic boom of tom-toms that had been loosened by Emerick, and subsequently stuffed with cloth and close-miked with a massive echo effect.  It’s said that many an American studio, though technically superior, would be torn down and rebuilt in an attempt to get the drum sound that The Beatles were getting in the primitive EMI studios. It’s safe to say that nobody came close.

Concurrently, the engineers were working on another innovation that would change how pop music was made, the invention of ADT, or Artificial Double Tracking.  The Beatles, and Lennon especially, hated the process of manual double tracking, requiring multiple takes to double their vocals. Ken Townsend found through use of a tape delay, one vocal track could be fed through another tape recorder to produce a wider soundstage and give the impression of two vocal takes.  At the time, technology only allowed it to be done in the final mixing stage where the recording head of the tape would be fed through the second tape recorder, manipulated to a different speed through an oscillator, and fed back into a fader on the mixing board.  Lennon was so impressed that he demanded to know how it was done and was told by Martin that it was produced through a “double-bifurcated sploshing flange”

The Beatles had always used drugs in some form or another, from their barbiturate days in Hamburg* to their famous introduction to pot by Bob Dylan.  The popular story goes that Dylan was impressed that their single "I Want To Hold Your Hand” had snuck in the line “I get high, I get high, I get highhhhh” only to be told they were saying “I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hideeee” and, surprised that they hadn’t done it before, invited them to smoke a joint at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City.

The first song that The Beatles ended up working on for the Revolver sessions was “Got To Get You Into My Life,” which featured a strong soul sound, and odd for them at the time, a simple love song lyric.  Some may have smelled something funny right away with lines like “I was alone I took a ride I didn’t know what I would find there”, but McCartney only admitted some thirty years later that “it was an ode to pot.” Even on this relatively straight-forward arrangement, producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick had a couple tricks up their sleeves to bring out the punchy sound of the final recording.  Martin arranged a horn quintet, made up of three trumpets and two tenor saxophones, and Emerick placed the microphones right into the horn bells and pushed the results through a limiter.  And despite the commonplace critique that The Beatles were lacking in instrumental ability, the band really swings here, helped by a quite nimble McCartney bassline.

The Beatles received a lot of credit for their incorporation of Indian music into the conventional pop form. Harrison had first been won over during the filming of Help! where one scene featured Indian musicians playing “Hard Day’s Night” on traditional instruments.   Harrison had gotten the ball rolling with his sitar work on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” but it’s really Revolver where his fully fledged love of Indian music comes into play.  Recorded only 4 days after “Got To Get You Into My Life,” Harrison’s first number for Revolver, “Love You Too,” was certainly ambitious for the time, but it hasn’t aged well.  Some of this may just be melocentrism; music is no doubt a reflection of one’s culture, and the Classical Indian music that Harrison loved seemed to be fit for introspection while Western music, especially rock music, tended to always be moving forward. I can’t really find fault with the musical arrangement, but Harrison’s caustic lyrics here, attempting to be both philosophical and Dylanesque, do little to move beyond the original ingenuity of hearing Classical Indian accompaniment on a Western Record for the first time.

Even for a band marked by such prodigious output at the time, the pressure was on for The Beatles to record singles for the hungry public, and their desire to shed the folk-rock label seemingly as quickly as they had adopted it led to the recording of McCartney’s “Paperback Writer” and Lennon’s “Rain” in a matter of two subsequent days. “Paperback Writer” was a show of their new found musical muscle, with a pulsing, punchy bassline and propulsive guitar riffs.  It was a wise move for McCartney to release the song prior to the album because the lyrical content was a little too straightforward for Revolver, focusing on a run of the mill novelist.  Musically however, the arrangement highlighted The Beatles’ desire for experimenting on the pop form, bound by an unexpected a capella intro and a clever, almost hidden use of “Frere Jacques” as a counter-melody harmony.  McCartney and Lennon, long fans of the bigger bass sound found on American records, implored Emerick to find a way to get a greater bass sound on their records, limited not only by EMI’s less than stellar mixing board but EMI’s strict rules on microphone placement as well.  Emerick, ever the innovator, and largely unsung hero of The Beatles greatest experimental efforts, devised a solution wherein a speaker was placed alongside the bass amp, and the signal reversed. It wasn’t quite direct injection (that would come with Sgt. Pepper), but it did the job well enough.  An interesting point of contention also arises with “Paperback Writer,” as no one is quite sure whether Harrison and McCartney swapped lead guitar and bass duties. If true, it’s a remarkable achievement for Harrison, who often bore the brunt of criticism for lack of instrumental skill.

“Rain” was a whole other animal.  Lennon was a cultural omnivore and wished to write a song that matched the cataclysm of counter-culture psychedelia vs traditional English propriety. The result: a track featuring washed out guitars, an inventive melody that mixed both pop and Indian raga, tightly tracked harmonies, and a rather ingenious use of studio trickery.

One has to realize that, though possible, studio experimentation was laborious and challenging.  There was no button to push, let alone a computer to manipulate the waveform; everything had to be done within the limits of analog tape.  Lennon, having no technical expertise, was challenging Martin and Emerick to make the music sound drug-induced, as if from another dimension and he was starting to hate the sound of his own voice.  The result was two-fold; the instrumental track would be played at a high speed, and the recording tape played back at a slower rate, while Lennon would sing the song in a lower pitch and have the tape sped up, creating the overall disconcerting track we know today.

I might call “Dr. Robert” a guilty pleasure, it’s certainly not an immediate favorite, or instantly recognizable as one of their better songs, but it is an exquisite piece of pop song-craft that acknowledges Lennon’s burgeoning talent as an observational songwriter.  Thematically, “Dr. Robert” is in line with the other more popular Lennon numbers from the album, poking fun at, if not directly questioning the blurred lines between traditional cultural hierarchy and counter-culture. There’s the obvious: he’s a doctor and he’s dealing illicit drugs; and the less so, “You’ll pay money just to see yourself with Dr. Robert,” an almost anti-materialism theme that Lennon comes back to with “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Elsewhere, it’s a clever concoction of mixed perspectives, odd imperative phrases like “Ring my friend I said you’d call Dr. Robert,” or “well well well, you’re feeling fine, well well well, he’ll make you, Dr. Robert,” not to mention the now trademark Beatle harmonies in their traditional thirds, giving the song a nice bluesy inflection in alternating verses. As for a bit of an ad-lib, there’s no doubt that Lennon liked his literary references, and there is a Doctor Robert character that works for National Health in Aldous Huxley’s Island, a novel about a proposed utopia.  Given that Lennon would later espouse his own idea of utopia (nutopia),  it’s not that much of a stretch that Lennon was making a conscious reference.

A couple short days later found The Beatles recording George Harrison’s attempt at social commentary with “Taxman.” The story goes that the insular Harrison had just stumbled upon the fact that the band’s earnings put them in the highest income tax (95%) bracket, thus the “there’s one for you, nineteen for me” line.  It’s also the first, and perhaps the only Beatle song to directly reference real people, as in the “Ah ah, Mr. Wilson,” “Ah ah, Mr. Heath,” backing vocal jabs at the respective leaders of the Labor and Conservative Party at the time.  Here, George Harrison’s natural sardonic delivery is pitch-perfect for the song, and though McCartney gets a lot of credit for the searing guitar solo and circular bassline (the run up before the guitar solo is something to behold), Harrison’s knack for mixed tempo song-work is emerging with his quick switch from 4/4 to 2/4 on the stinging guitar line ( an overall songwriting signature that not only peeks its head out on a couple of Lennon compositions here, but “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” as well).  The syncopation of the rhythm section, with McCartney and Starr firmly in the pocket, might only be outdone by “She Said, She Said” on Revolver.

Not to be outdone, Lennon brings out the band’s next effort with “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Though (perhaps cloyingly) furnished with an ornate lead guitar line, the message is simple: “You tell me that you have everything you want, and your bird can sing, but you don’t get me, you don’t get me,” an ironic counter-statement to Harrison’s desire for money in the just finished “Taxman” (and they said he was spiritual!). Though Lennon would later call the song a “throwaway,” it’s another clear conveyance of Lennon’s clash with domesticity. Not openly acknowledged at the time, Lennon was having trouble adjusting to the “settled-down” life of marriage while his bandmates were out clubbing and enjoying “Swinging London,” and this number aptly fits Lennon’s desire of wanting to be a leader and wanting to escape the mundane.

“I’m Only Sleeping” continues Lennon’s creative assault on traditional values, content to lie in bed while the rest of the world seemed in a hurry to do everything and nothing all the same.  The recording process would borrow the concept from “Rain” wherein once again, Lennon’s vocals were sped up and the instrumentation was slowed down, giving the otherwise plain instrumentation a textural, almost chunky effect.  Also brought about by “Rain” was Lennon’s desire to have something played in reverse, which would decidedly be placed on Harrison’s shoulders with a backwards guitar solo.  Harrison rarely ad-libbed his guitar solos, most were transcribed and practiced to a polish before recording.  Further complicating matters was that the solo had to be thought out in a way that the initial recording would be reversed and sound logically forward, and for this effort it reportedly took Harrison 57 takes to get the required sound.  McCartney’s bass is the unsung hero here, stringing together the whole song’s odd melodic phrases with a walking bass line that makes it work.

“Eleanor Rigby” followed two short days later.  McCartney had apparently become obsessed with the new classical movement (evidenced before in his musique concrete collage in Tomorrow Never Knows) and wanted Martin to arrange something “sounding like Vivaldi” for a new observational piece he had been working on.  The outline had come together after McCartney met his then-girlfriend Jane Asher at Rigby’s, a clothing store, and patched on the name Eleanor from the lead actress in Help!, Eleanor Bron.  Strange for a Beatles effort, and perhaps even more strange given the lonely circumstances of the song, McCartney sought out his bandmates to flesh out the song. The image of “darning his socks in the night” was actually Ringo’s, and “Ah look at all the lonely people” appears to have been ad-libbed at the studio when they were in need of a final verse.  Martin seemed to take note from Bernard Hermann’s Fahrenheit 451 score, or perhaps (quite chillingly) Psycho, with the string octet often alternating between strident, almost discordant phrases and more soothing, intimate ones.  As an overall lyric, it’s one of McCartney’s best, not only in the subject matter of abject loneliness in society (a topic rarely touched in pop music) but in the memorable imagery, especially in the line “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door, who is it for?” Lennon may have been taking the loud approach to embracing counter-cultural themes, but McCartney’s “Rigby” is much more striking in noting the wrongs of traditional English culture, “No one is saved.“

Next would be “Eleanor Rigby”’s despondent twin, “For No One,” which features one of the most bare arrangements in their later period. As a slow, almost painful waltz, the arrangement is bolstered by some of the most poignant end of relationship lyrics ever committed to pop music.  For the common critique that McCartney didn’t have facility equal to Lennon’s as a writer, “For No One” is one of the finest counterpoints you could have.  The descending nature of the melody that is intertwined with McCartney’s succinct phrasing evokes the feeling of loneliness and despair as an inescapable reality.  “Your day breaks/ Your mind aches/ You find that all her words of kindness linger on when she no longer needs you.”  McCartney would later attribute the inspiration for the song from an argument with his then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher; even though the relationship would go on another two years, the seeds of doubt were already there from that desperate admission that ends the song: “a love that should have lasted years.”

By and large, Lennon and McCartney had always found a song to give to Ringo on each of their albums, from “Boys” on Please Please Me, to most recently “What Goes On” on Rubber Soul, but “Yellow Submarine” remains perhaps his most well known, a whimsical number that daringly combines child fantasy with drug undertones, a tale of escapism and collectivism.  The defining characteristic of “Yellow Submarine” has to be its ingenious and organic usage of sound collage. Far from the wildly psychedelic usage in “Tomorrow Never Knows,“ “Yellow Submarine” was inspired by Bob Dylan’s recent “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” for its ramshackle charm sounding, like a live cut from some underground bar. Certainly this is evident in the marching band riff (purportedly a 15 second loop from “La Reve passe”), and to perpetuate the nautical theme, the band went about gathering whistles, hoses, chains, buckets of water, and even an old tin bath.   

Harrison’s third number, then unprecedented for any Beatle album, was the dissonant “I Want To Tell You,” inspired both by his recent love for Eastern-flavored music and, in a subtle way, his appreciation of Lennon’s songwriting.  Beginning with a circular guitar line, a la “Day Tripper,“ the seemingly unfinished riff echoes the circular thoughts mooring around Harrison’s head and the self-doubt that goes with expressing them: “It’s only me, it’s not my mind/ that is confusing things” being perhaps the best example of the loaded meanings Harrison could find within a simple phrase (and perhaps a skeleton of Lennon’s later “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”). In his own way, Harrison was still trying to find music to be able to mold to his thoughts, unlike what seemed vice-versa for McCartney and Lennon, and the choice of overall dissonance not only fulfills this purpose but amplifies it.

McCartney’s last two numbers for the album, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Here, There, And Everywhere” are perhaps best understood as McCartney’s desire to be a songwriter of old while keeping in with the new.  “Good Day Sunshine” is bursting with life, from the vibrant choice of key (A, arguably the happiest sounding key), and mirrors the impact the summer of ‘66 was having; The Lovin’ Spoonful would release “Daydream” and later the darker “Summer in the City,” The Kinks “Sunny Afternoon,“ and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”  Though not as outright an outlet of escapism, McCartney’s detail of a naive and blissful sunny afternoon belies the turbulence of counter-culture that was beginning to emerge and yet express the joie de vivre of a Cole Porter song.  Unusual for its pronounced piano-dominated arrangement on an album so otherwise brimming with experimentation, it’s no doubt a conscious choice of McCartney to bring things back to the good old days.

“Here, There, And Everywhere” accomplishes this theme even better. Here, McCartney takes a melody that sounds so natural (yet the changes are unusual for any pop number) and makes it breathe, as if the song is wistful for itself.  There is a common belief that “Here, There, And Everywhere” was where the influence of The Beach Boys began to take hold, with the cooing, wide harmonies and simple instrumentation, and McCartney would later acknowledge the same, but everywhere was it apparent that McCartney had made the transformation, seemingly overnight, from ably transforming influences, to becoming an influence of his own right.

The last song recorded for Revolver would be an onerous 9-hour session, the result of which would be “She Said She Said.“  The content stemmed from a drug-induced conversation between Lennon and actor Peter Fonda, who had claimed to have a near-death experience while undergoing an operation, but, in typical Lennon fashion, and then morphed into a multi-rhythmic odyssey bent on doubt and self-discovery.  Largely unrecognized in this, and later Lennon numbers of similar tempo reflexivity, Harrison played a huge role in fleshing Lennon’s ideas out in musical form. It would be Harrison’s idea to juxtapose the darkly chaotic “I know what it’s like to be dead” to the childhood reminiscence of “When I was a boy, everything was right,” including the idea of switching from 4/4 to ¾.  What may also contribute to the strong tonal flavor of the song is the fact that it is one of the few songs that McCartney doesn’t play on at all, with Harrison taking over bass guitar duties.  Most lauded however was Starr’s drumming, as cataclysmic as “Tomorrow Never Knows,“ never again would Starr’s drumming sound as energetic, or creative as this last all-out number recorded for Revolver.

Sequencing
The album was finished. However, a remarkable amount of The Beatles’ longevity should not just be limited to their songwriting ability, but to their perseverance to the album form. Although Revolver would be bastardized in its North American incarnation ( Yesterday and Today would include songs left off the North American versions from as far back as Help! and included “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Dr. Robert”, and “And Your Bird Can Sing”), it would be the last time The Beatles would allow it, while the British editions would be what the group truly intended (an error corrected when their entire discography was released on CD).  A lot of what factored into what-went-where for The Beatles, and what makes their albums stick out in our minds, was the placement of key.

Side A:
Taxman- D major
Eleanor Rigby – E minor (2nd)
I’m Only Sleeping- E flat minor
Love You Too-  C minor
Here, There, And Everywhere –  G Major
Yellow Submarine – G Major
She Said She Said – B flat Major (flat-3rd)

Side B:
Good Day Sunshine – A Major
And Your Bird Can Sing – E Major
For No One – B Major
Doctor Robert- B Major
I Want To Tell You – A Major
Got To Get You Into My Life – G Major
Tomorrow Never Knows – C Major

George Martin was labelled “the fifth Beatle” for many reasons, and his experience with classical music may be the most important factor he brought with him to the group.  There is little doubt the sequencing is influenced by movements within a classical piece, the keys either resolving one another (“Good Day Sunshine” into “And Your Bird Can Sing”), or bringing it into unresolved territory (“Eleanor Rigby” into “I’m Only Sleeping”), or both by sheer virtue of the instrumentation involved (“Got To Get You Into My Life” into “Tomorrow Never Knows”). The particular choice of "Taxman” as the first song on the album is inspired, not only due to the fact that it is the only song in its respective key, but that it is the first, and only song ever written by Harrison to open a Beatle album.  It is a more practical choice in the light that it’s one of the harder driving songs on the record and Beatle releases up to this point always started with a bang. (The fake count-in is a peculiar play on “I Saw Her Standing There.”) To then go into classical music territory with “Eleanor Rigby,“ its sadness amplified by the fact that it is the minor second of the previous key, was certainly a conscious choice, bolstered by the next song, “I’m Only Sleeping,” which was also recorded in the same key (though retroactively slowed down a half step before going into the key’s parallel major’s relative minor (C minor) on “Love You Too”). Though on the surface level, a transition between hard rock, classical, psychedelic rock, and Indian raga could hardly be a discernable pattern, the key pattern gives a balanced structure to the overall affair. The album then undergoes a melodic lift by going to “Love You Too”’s parallel major’s perfect 4th (G major) on “Here, There, And Everywhere,” an effect that it holds onto with “Yellow Submarine.”  The overall strange tone of “She Said She Said,“ the last song on Side A, flips the pattern on its head by taking the relative major of “Yellow Submarine”’s parallel minor ( a pattern already played out in the chord changes of “Here, There, And Everywhere”) for the almost unheard of use of B flat major.

Side B starts out with the uplifting “Good Day Sunshine” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” mirrored by the latter being a perfect fifth of the former’s key (A major to E major).  That the very next song “For No One” again takes the perfect 5th of the previous “And Your Bird Can Sing” (E major to B major), with a drastically different overall tone, exemplifies The Beatles’ ability to lull the audience into a pattern to unexpected results. Though “Dr. Robert” is in the same key (mirroring the previous sequence of “Here, There And Everywhere” and “Yellow Submarine), it makes a curious choice of A (the flat seventh) as the dominant tone of the song, serving as a harmonic bridge to “I Want To Tell You”’s key of A major.

It would seem out of place to have “Got To Get You Into My Life” (in the key of G major) follow a song in the key of A major, if not for the D chord undertones that arrive at the end of “I Want To Tell You,” which is the perfect 5th in the key of G.  The last song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” despite its wild arrangement, plays out in the key of C.

Today, Revolver still stands as one of the most remarkably crafted albums of all time, breaking all expectations for what a rock album should, or even could accomplish.  Where the 60’s was a decade that by and large contained albums that pushed singles amongst filler, The Beatles launched headlong into evolving the art of the album into its highest form.  

Revolver was recorded from April 6th to June 21st, 1966 and subsequently released August 5th,1966

Wild Life, Paul McCartney’s follow-up to Ram, and first LP with his new band Wings was a critical and commercial failure upon release. Much of the problem came from McCartney’s ill-advised decision to make it an impromptu album, inspired by a story of Bob Dylan cutting an album in three days.  Yet McCartney’s strengths are in well developed melodies and here there are a lot of cuts that were just trying to stretch the album into an album. One could however make the case that if there were EP’s at the time, you could have made a pretty decent one out of the material present. (It’s also important that you listen to these songs with good headphones or speakers, because those arrangements aren’t gonna stand out on just any laptop speakers, and it’s worth it)

Wild Life (The EP)

1. Wild Life
2. Love Is Strange
3. Tomorrow
4. Little Woman Love 

“Wild Life” is one of the more polished numbers, a bruising, bluesy number that not so subtly alludes to the barely visible line between humanity and animality. McCartney’s musicality is on full display here, building from a simple acoustic number to a melody that’s brimming with tension. I’d love to see this used in Breaking Bad, I think it would work fantastically 

“Love Is Strange” is a cover from 1956 by a little known R&B group called Mickey & Silvia but you’d hardly know it from the tickling Hawaiian-Afro-Cuban guitar lines that flicker about in the long instrumental introduction. For people who are so quick to lambaste Paul McCartney’s later group, they’d never know this was Wings. 

“Tomorrow” is a number that could have found a home on the musical Annie. It’s pretty cheesy, but once again McCartney saves the number with some inventive arrangements, the backing vocals are especially effective here a la “Mr. Sandman” that act as a bridge in between verse and chorus. 

“Little Woman Love” showcases McCartney’s boogie-woogie piano playing, and it’s a song that throws subtlety out the window, celebrating rock & roll in the biblical sense, despite its overt nature, it’s really fun. 

McCartney; In Which One Beatle Became One Man, Reviewed (1970)

The heart can be a horrible thing. Horrible in that it dissuades logic and reason and throws irrationality to the fore, and in 1970, the weaker strains of the heart were all The Beatles had left.

THE END OF LEGENDS

The narrative for the eventual Beatle break-up has two well-trodden beginnings: the death of Brian Epstein and the emergence of Yoko Ono –  with neither one placing blame on The Beatles themselves. In the ashes of the break-up such thought was heresy. The Beatles were musical gods, the Lennon-McCartney partnership etched into musical history. They had saved a generation from the death of Camelot, and no one could believe that the members of the inner circle were capable of their own undoing. Such was the power of The Beatles that individualism could not be deemed the cause. The heart played tricks on The Beatle-loving public, and even as time wore on the blame kept landing on individuals outside of the fabulous foursome.

Even with the lavish attention that was fostered on the quartet, we, the public, only had glimpses of each band member’s desires. Let It Be showed the band under tremendous strain, but we insisted that the arm-twisting of McCartney only be seen as him trying to keep the band together, rather than driving it apart.

Yet The Beatles were four men, and only four men, replete with differing ideas, who had nonetheless worked together well enough to coalesce into a sound that defined an era. Men can only be human, their acts the only thing that becomes immortal.  The Beatles had slipped the reins of being individual members; they were an entity that couldn’t possibly fall victim to human error. Such is the cruelty of the heart. They officially broke up in April of 1970, but their identity would forever linger, a ghost that would haunt their individual lives and careers as long as teach had a mortal coil.

OUT OF THE ASHES

It is difficult to imagine the immense struggle they must have faced. There was, after all, no historical precedent: entertainers before had only to live up to the ghosts of their own creations, not the collective creation of a band that benefitted from their own surroundings, that had adapted so well to the ever-shifting culture, that had seared an indelible mark on everything around them.  What mere mortal, thrown from the ivory towers of the gods, could survive becoming, once again, earth-bound?”

Paul McCartney was such a man. No doubt the rift had caused considerable depression, much of it evident in his last numbers with the group that had launched him into stardom: “Oh Darling,” “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road,” – even “Let It Be” spoke of the pain, the guilt, the remorse, remembrance, and refuge that McCartney sought in his creative world, as his reality crumbled beneath him. McCartney was also a driven man; his desire to be adored and remembered, the vices of lesser ilk, would propel him once again to reshape his own identity out of the ashes.

At their death knell, The Beatles were a group of prodigious production. Having long tired of touring, they had made the studio their religion as they endlessly tried to improve upon current techniques, to stretch the limits of what was possible. The end results were their own idols, golden images that reflected their drive and ability.

McCartney would be, could only be the exact opposite. Abbey Road was not yet a year old, and as their ultimate product it might have been their best – no single overdub out of place, no piece over-produced, the sound destined to live on beyond its own creators, god-like.

Of the Four, none could be better suited for the challenge than Paul McCartney. His father a jazz musician, McCartney’s ear for melody and ability with instruments was unmatched in the group. It was he who showed the most interest in production and had the greatest knack for it. (One example is the geese-like sound that floats above “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was the end product of McCartney recording himself laughing and messing with the tape loops.)

Dismayed with the Let It Be sessions, McCartney retreated to his home to record something “back to basics,” armed only with the instruments he owned and the 4-track recorder that he kept in his living room. At the start he was a Beatle, but when he released the finished product, he ran it with a press release that announced his tenure with the group was over.

The Lovely Linda

The album begins with the man in love. “The Lovely Linda” is a little acoustic jaunt that was recorded in McCartney’s living room. The high pitched squeak is actually the sound of the living room door being opened by Linda herself and although its a fragment, it builds the foundation for the theme of the album; ramshackle, intimate, and off the cuff.  McCartney didn’t give a damn, he just wanted to see what he could do on his own

That Would Be Something

“That Would Be Something” is really where McCartney takes off. The song starts with a lone bluesy guitar riff that manages both to reflect McCartney’s situation and show off his musical talent, filling out with both acoustic and vocal percussion and some smooth bass work. But it’s McCartney’s Elvis-like croon that steals the show. Having had to live under the constant pressure of innovating while in The Beatles, McCartney’s reverence for the older styles really shows in this laid back performance.

Valentine’s Day

And then comes the wordless “Valentine’s Day,” a succinct jam under 2 minutes that if anything proves McCartney’s talent with melody. Not a single other Beatle could have gotten away with not using his voice and “Valentine’s Day” is aware of that: its guitar caustic and biting, the drumming rapid, a kiss-off to the other members as if to say, “Well look what I can do, even without you.”

Every Night

McCartney, even in his Beatle years, rarely sang in the first person, which is a shame, because he’s quite good at it. “Every Night” might be the best song on the album (if it weren’t for a little thing called “Junk” and “Maybe I’m Amazed”). Truly a portrait of himself at the time, it’s quite lyrically clever that McCartney makes the point that he wants to escape the ‘every nights,’ for the singular moments where he’s just with the one he loves. As a little kid I was enthralled with this arrangement, the off-beat boom hiccup of the snare and that wordless refrain driving the point home and making it one of McCartney’s most endearing and independent songs on record.

Hot As Sun/Glasses

“Hot As Sun/ Glasses” marks an interesting point in the album; it’s another instrumental and again as melodic as anything McCartney ever made, and it’s a great homage to the classic fifties progressions (think Buddy Holly) as well as a quick foray into new sounds (that summery organ), John Cage (the classical dissonance), and musique-concrete (the snippet of “Suicide” – a demo he left off the album).

Junk

McCartney has a gift with acoustic guitars; intertwined with his voice, they become him when he’s at his most wistful (see  "Yesterday,“ "Blackbird,” “Her Majesty,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” “I Will,” even as far back as “I’ll Follow The Sun”), and no example might be more powerful than “Junk.” The song that might as well have instigated Elliot Smith’s whole career it’s a beautiful piece of McCartney’s third person story telling that manages to make even the blandest objects alive and heart wrenching.  Only (fittingly) Rogers and Hammerstein ever made ordinary things as equally charming in “My Favorite Things.” Even before the chorus, just in the way McCartney gently lulls “Motor cars, Handle Bars, Bicycles for two,” you sense the immediate sadness, the forlorn nature of these objects without mentioning another word. Such is the power of McCartney’s music.

Man We Was Lonely

The next number might be the most jaunty and uplifting of the whole album. “Man We Was Lonely” begins with a beautiful intro that sounds eerily close to the chord progression Lennon himself would use on his ruminating “Love.” The way the melody melts into the chords, and even Linda’s vocals (long a point of contention among solo McCartney apologists) are put to good use here. McCartney’s vocal talent is on display too, using two very different takes to juxtapose past and present, reminiscence and moving on.

Oo You

If it weren’t for McCartney’s unmistakable voice, in the context of todays music, you could sneak “That Would Be Something” and this next number “Oo You” onto a White Stripes –  maybe even early Black Keys –  compilation and people wouldn’t know the difference. It’s a connection that doesn’t strike right away, but it becomes obvious when put to light. Listen to how McCartney plays the guitar part, even the sound: isolated, instantly bluesy, and referential to the old Delta blues players that came before him. In describing McCartney’s ability to be the everyman and play all the instruments, an assumption is made that he can’t be exceptional at all or any of them, but he is.

Momma Miss America

It is with little warning that McCartney comes back to roughshod roots; the rollicking “Momma Miss America” is a bouncy instrumental. McCartney has never tried to set the world on fire with lyrical wordplay; rahter, these musical sketches are a more fitting portrait. His mission was never to enlighten, never overwrought with messages (both of which would befall Lennon and Harrison) but he sought to lighten, to engage the listener with the joy of the music itself. One can find many examples of simple toss-off lyrics in McCartney’s career, but there are few examples of melodies that don’t grab your attention.

Teddy Boy

If this album is to have a dud, it would be “Teddy Boy,” but even this is a prime example of the above. Listen to the song just once and try not to hum the melody, and even with that caveat, it’s not a bad song; the touches in production help as well, with the subtle backing harmonies, the soft patter of the drums, the ad-lib ending. It’s a nice little harmless tune and that’s all it was meant to be.

Sing Along Junk

“Sing Along Junk” shows just how pure a melody “Junk” was. Even without the lyrics this (admittedly more produced) version puts the words in your head with the guitar alone, but it’s nice to hear the piano and guitar bounce the melody back and forth.

Maybe I’m Amazed

Out of the depths, we find McCartney at his most ragged on the beautiful “Maybe I’m Amazed,” his voice hoarse and pleading, the vocals both universal and intimate, and that guitar hook one for the ages. Few times have we seen the man as barely composed as he plays here, every shred of his soul put into every instrument, and its a nice touch that this song could be both about a friend and a lover (as it probably was). The way the arrangement builds is cinematic and personally reflective, the piano transforms from a sad waltz to a rock and roll pounding, the guitars plead and choke, and the drums go back and forth from put together to off-kilter. It’s the song that would come to define the album, despite the difference in sound.

Kreen-Akrore

“Kreen-Akrore” is a highly unusual number for any version of McCartney, Beatle or otherwise.  To start, it’s percussion-based, and the groove starts out in a New Orleans fashion before some left-field production elements join the fray, and then a McCartney drum solo! It’s not all bad stuff. In fact the Beach-Boys-meets-Indian drone harmonies make quite an interesting draw midway through. It’s just so singularly unique in McCartney’s catalogue, too far ahead of its time.

McCartney managed to do the impossible: it took a God and made him a man, humanized him, and defined his sound.  Nothing on the album sounds like it could have fit on a Beatles record, and yet it’s a welcome idea. While All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band had better critical response, McCartney is the underrated winner of the bunch. Harrison’s All Things becomes too self-aggrandizing, and its production often mires the good songs that are on it, while Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band  is almost too honest and caustic to listen to in one sitting.

McCartney found his calling in creating music that soothes, and an album that can be played from start to finish without wearing out its welcome. Ram will still be my favorite solo album of his, where he took all the best little bits from McCartney and put it into a finished product, but no other product in The Beatles catalog, solo or otherwise, quite reaches the comfort and charm of this one.

It’s also a highly influential record, you can see where Elliot Smith and Jack White found their bearings from McCartney, and even with its lo-fi aesthetic (barring “Maybe I’m Amazed”)  it’s a highly ambitious (and successful, reaching #2 in 1970) record. McCartney combines the man behind the music with the power of his music (and a bevy of styles and influences from old time blues to musique-concrete), assuring that even in the ashes of the greatest pop group of all time, there was music to be made.


Classic Album Series: Ram, Paul McCartney (1971)

While it is common fact that Paul McCartney officially called the Beatles quits in the spring of 1970, most people don’t realize the immense struggle it put McCartney through.  While Lennon, Harrison, and Starr went on with solo careers with the vigor of free men, it was McCartney who seemed to suffer.  This struggle was rampant through his songwriting of the time; usually a songwriter who prided on third person narratives and story-telling, McCartney was  writing about something completely new, himself.  “Two Of Us”, “Let It Be”,  “The Long and Winding Road”, “Carry That Weight”, even perhaps “Oh Darling"  are all not only skilled love songs and some of his best material, but they also reflect a man troubled on the inside.  McCartney, his eponymous debut still showed the scars of this massive breakup, with "Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Junk” both showing the man with his heart on his sleeve, and the ragged production not only a sign of his talent but perhaps his mood at the time.

However, McCartney is too much of a showman, and too much of an immense talent to let such things bother him for long, although his writing partner was perhaps more famed for his fight for the working class, it was McCartney who had really come from one, and thus this hardship was almost a challenge for him to do better.  Music never seemed to be the issue, McCartney’s appreciation for music was only eclipsed by his talent for it, and of his previous band’s members, he was the most well rounded.  Yet this was an unknown commodity of the time, it was a scarce few people who knew that he had played drums on numbers such as “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” as well as lead guitar on songs such as “Taxman”, “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the like.  Many musicians who have met the man in fact will attest that he is a guitarist of prodigious skill, and only limited by his choice to play bass.

So McCartney set about recording Ram in late 1970 and finished in March of 1971.  It had been recorded partly in McCartney’s home studio in Scotland, and it was finished in New York.  This accounted for the intriguing overall soundscape of the record, it wasn’t quite polished, but it wasn’t as ramshackle as its predecessor, McCartney, had been.  The inclusion of a formal studio led McCartney’s whimsical and homespun melodies to get full production treatment, and let his vision be un-compromised in scope.

Critics, hungry for the sound of his former band, were very harsh at first with the overall consensus being that it was full of whimsy but not much else.  However as time played its course, many began to find new insight into Paul McCartney’s second album, some even called it the first indie record, a label which given the range of styles found on the record, seems rather fitting.  The album, track by track, after the jump.

1. Too Many People

“Too Many People” would start the album, a rather scathing number with biting acoustic guitars and lyrics (admittedly) directed at John Lennon stating among other things “too many people preaching practices” and “you took your lucky break and broke it in two”.  The production is effortlessly organic with great harmonies and acoustic instruments and the stinging solo at the end is worth the wait.

2. 3 Legs

“3 Legs” is at the base, an acoustic delta blues styled number, with the production values held in check to emulate recordings of the era. Despite the warmth of the song, the interpretations vary from being a diatribe about the end of his former band, to just an attack on John Lennon himself.  Yet the real genius is how authentic Paul McCartney sounds by way of the blues.

3. Ram On

“Ram On” is a number that is an example of McCartney’s pure melodic talents, in a wistful dreamy number similar in style to his contemporary Brian Wilson.  Looking back now, it almost seems like a direct ancestor of today’s indie lo-fi, an intriguing arrangement that captures the listener’s attention in both its meticulous beauty and off the cuff production, clocking in at 2:26, there is hardly any number in McCartney’s catalog that approaches this profound perfection.

4. Dear Boy

“Dear Boy” continues the sentiments of “Too Many People” with a beautiful vocal arrangement and great melody led by a striking piano chord structure.  If critics are to be believed in assessing Linda McCartney’s vocal talent (or lack thereof) then it is a testament to McCartney’s skill as a producer that her backing vocals are top notch.

5. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey

“Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey” stands as a perfect example of McCartney’s good and bad.  Critics will say this song typifies McCartney’s lackadaisical lyricism, but will also say it showcases his amazing melodic ability.  The transition is perfect, and the arrangement (with George Martin’s help) is awe-inspiring in its beauty.  The storm (recorded on the edge of a cliff in Scotland) is a perfect unexpected touch, and the suite of melodies stands among McCartney’s best.  The guitars alone bring to mind at times The Police (Hole in My Life) and Dire Straits (the lead guitar throughout Admiral Hasley). It’s content is ridiculous, but it’s never trying to be serious.

6. Smile Away

“Smile Away” is a straight out raunchy rock number, showcasing McCartney’s ability as an all around musician with some great rhythm and lead guitar interplay along with drumming as well as a great rough vocal.  It’s admittedly a throwaway number, yet again McCartney’s talent with melody makes it worth repeated listens.

7. Heart Of The Country

“Heart of the Country” features a warm organic rootsy arrangement with Paul McCartney at the top of his vocal register mimicked by an impressive acoustic lead guitar.  The real star of this show however is the bass line, a bouncing chromatic groove that matches the feel of the music perfectly.

8. Monkberry Moon Delight

“Monkberry Moon Delight” is pure nonsense, like someone took the wrong turn out of “I Am the Walrus”.  Despite sounding like being on the wrong end of an acid trip, McCartney’s gruff vocals are quite impressive and the melody is catchy despite how much the lyrics try to throw you off. It’s simply just good rollicking fun.

9. Eat At Home

“Eat at Home” is a tongue-in-cheek sex themed number that features some of the best guitar lines this side of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

10. Long Haired Lady

“Long Haired Lady” starts with an admittedly horrid intro, but the arrangements constant development makes it one of the more interesting songs on the entire album.  Great vocals, great guitar, and a rather interesting breakdown around the 2:20 mark make this song worthwhile.

11. Ram On (Reprise)

“Ram On (Reprise)” in just 55 short seconds, makes you just want to go right back to that part of the album, just perfect placement.

12. Back Seat Of My Car

“Back Seat of My Car” would close out the traditional album, a beautiful Beach Boys styled number, with all the harmonies provided by McCartney himself, and a much more produced, though still quite disarmingly beautiful and charming, arrangement.

Bonus:

13. Another Day (Single)

“Another Day” was initially recorded to be on the album, but due to marketing strategy at the time, was released before the album as a single.  The song is among the best McCartney would ever write Beatles or not, the arrangement, bass, lyrics, and vocals are all top-notch, a beautifully sad tale of the eventual breakdown of the titular character.

And thus, in a little over 44 minutes, Ram was over.  The album has stood the test of time and is perhaps McCartney’s finest album, it finds him with unfiltered, and unprecedented control of the studio, giving him the full artistic vision he wanted and he did not disappoint.  In many ways it is a precursor to the indie music genre and rather brilliantly captures McCartney at a time where he had something to prove, where he was hurting, and showcases his innate musical ability that made him so successful throughout his career.