Monday, November 27, 2017

Fool on the Hill - Hits of '67

In 1965, John Lennon toyed with The Beatles' formula when he wrote of the ubiquitous "Nowhere Man."  The mysterious identity of the man was left unclear and open to interpretation; was it Lennon? (As with "Help!," the answer seems obvious). McCartney, not to be outdone (Think "Penny Lane" after Lennon’s "Strawberry Fields"), borrows this general theme to create the nondescript Fool

On March 29, 1967, The Beatles converged on Paul's manor in St. John's Wood to work out Ringo's vocal contribution to Sgt. Pepper, "With a Little Help From My Friends." In The Beatles, biographer Hunter Davis says, "Paul then went back to his guitar and started to sing and play a very slow, beautiful song about a foolish man sitting on the hill. John listened to it quietly, staring blankly out of the window, almost as if he weren't listening. Paul sang it many times, la-la-ing words he hadn't thought of yet. When at last he finished, John said he'd better write the words down or he'd forget them. Paul said it was okay. He wouldn’t forget them. It was the first time Paul had played it for John.  There was no discussion.  Then they lit a marijuana cigarette, sharing it between them."

Of the song, Paul stated that, "'Fool On The Hill' was mine and I think I was writing about someone like Maharishi. His detractors called him a fool. Because of his giggle he wasn't taken too seriously. It was this idea of a fool on the hill, a guru in a cave, I was attracted to.  I remember once hearing about a hermit who missed the Second World War because he'd been in a cave in Italy, and that always appealed to me."

The first recording session that featured the song was a demo Paul made September 6th, 1967.  The session began at 7pm in Abbey Road, Studio Two, the first and most important point of business of the day being an extensive reworking of John's "I Am the Walrus," as well as time devoted to Harrison's "Blue Jay Way." After the other Beatles left the studio for the night, Paul still wanted to get something down on tape. Geoff Emerick, the only one left at the studio (aside from Paul) said, "'That sounds like the start of a really good song, What's it called?' 'It's my newest one for the film – it's called 'The Fool On The Hill,' McCartney replied proudly."  The session finally ended at 3 am after the demo was complete. As work continued on other Beatles songs, as well as filming for the movie, The Beatles didn't actually begin work on "The Fool On The Hill" until nearly three weeks later, and completion of the track wouldn’t come until October 20 for the mono mix and November 1 for the altered stereo version. Even in the Sgt. Pepper era, it was unusual to spend this much time on a single track.

One account of the impetus of the song was while Paul was walking his dog, Martha, on Primrose Hill. As he watched the sunrise, he noticed that Martha was missing. In an instant, he turned to look for his dog, and there to his side stood a man who'd appeared out of nowhere. Paul insisted that the man hadn't been there seconds prior as he'd looked in that direction for Martha. Paul and the gentleman exchanged their greetings, and the man spoke of what a beautiful view it was from the top of the hill. Within seconds, Paul looked around again, and the man was gone. He had vanished just as he'd appeared. Alistair Taylor who was with Paul that morning relates the story in his bio, Yesterday, "Paul and I both felt the same weird sensation that something special had happened.  We sat down rather shakily, and Paul said, 'What the hell do you make of that?  That's weird.  He was here wasn't he?  We did speak to him?'"

Other accounts point instead to Paul’s Tarot card reading by Marijke Koger.

Lyrically, the song explores the same themes of isolation covered in "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Leaving Home." Where the earlier songs merely suggest the inner lives, thoughts and feelings of their protagonists through attention to tell-tale, albeit painfully mundane details, we find the attention focused here almost exclusively on the main character's inner self, with the external references having become vague and abstract. Contrast, for example, Father MacKenzie's darning of socks with the unnamed "man of a thousand voices."

Though not a hit for The Beatles, the song is, alongside "I Am the Walrus," the best song on the soundtrack (keep in mind we're talking EP here, not the American release that included "Strawberry Fields" et al). Interestingly, the song went to No. 6 on the charts for Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, marrying a bossa nova beat with the strings associated with a Bacharach tune. The song was the top selling "soft listening" hit of the year.