Sunday, October 14, 2018

The White Album Track by Track

I'm a terrible insomniac. I'll get out of bed at midnight or so and wander around the house. At times, I'm productive – I just finished a re-edit of my novel Miles From Nowhere and I'm working on the cover art – but when I'm not writing, I read or binge watch TV. I get spoiled though. Once I've seen something great, I have trouble settling into something else. I mean how good was Blade Runner 2049 and the new season of Black Mirror? And doesn't Game of Thrones make everything else pale in comparison?

Long story short, I find myself moving in odd directions once 3am rolls around. I read all the Harry Potter books backward, for instance (what a different perspective it created). I've never seen all the Star Wars films in order chronologically (Prequels, Rogue 1, original trilogy, 7, 8 – so I’m working on that), but to sum up my sleep issue, I watched Breaking Bad backwards. It's the story of a Drug Lord who becomes a chemistry teacher without cancer. Doesn't have the same impact.

Paul is dead, man; miss him, miss him: Anyway, all that backward thinking reminded me of the backmasking in The Beatles' White Album. While the phenomenon began with "Rain" from the Revolver sessions (Beatles '65 in the U.S.), it's The Beatles when all the hoopla began. As "Revolution No. 9" begins you hear, over and over again, a creepy British voice saying "Number 9 .... Number 9 ... Number 9 ..." (Ringo, I think) along with screaming, crying, the sounds of a crash, and other disturbing sounds. It had to mean something, right? And then some Beatle fanatic somewhere made the stunning decision to play the song backward. In the days of record players and reel-to-reel tape, that wasn't so hard to do. The results were even more disturbing. "Number 9" backward sounds suspiciously like "Turn me on, dead man." Instantly, rumors appeared that Paul McCartney was dead. Go find better publicity than that. Check it all out on youtube if you want – if you're up like me in the middle of the night, you have plenty of time – but if you're more into the music itself, here instead is a rundown of 1968's seminal LP, The Beatles:

Side One.

Back in the USSR: The best evidence of the tension between members of the group was Ringo quitting the Beatles for about 2 weeks. Ringo was always caught in the middle, and on August 22, 1968, he walked out of the studio. In his absence, the Beatles began recording one of their finest rock songs. Basic track drums were played by Paul although they were later completed by John and George while Paul played other instruments. The song was by Paul, written while in Rishikesh with Mike Love of The Beach Boys who commented that The Beach Boys sound, Particularly "Surfin' USA" was owed to Chuck Berry. The end result fused the incredible backing vocals by George and John, in a pure Beach Boys style, a first class lead guitar line and Paul's thrilling vocal, all introduced with jet plane sound effects!

Dear Prudence: Prudence Farrow, sister of actress Mia Farrow, was in India with all four Beatles following the same course. However, Prudence seemingly took it more seriously than anyone else and tried to meditate more and better "trying to reach God quicker" as John later explained. The song was a bit of coaxing on John’s part for Prudence to maybe lighten up a bit.

Glass Onion: John would wax historical on God a few years later, but the introspective Beatle on Glass Onion took his oftentimes cryptic lyrics and explained them away. In the track he referred to as many previous Beatles songs as he could to make it even more difficult than before to understand the connection between them. The reference to Paul being the walrus indeed added to the blossoming McCartney death hoax.

Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da: One of those songs you ended up singing to your kids, the “life goes on” idea is Paul’s attempt to produce a reggae song. I doubt that it works as a reggae song, but remains Beatle fun.

Wild Honey Pie: An impromptu jam in the ashram led to Paul writing and recording the track on his own by overdubbing a bass drum, his vocals and several acoustic guitars. Paul said that it was a "fragment of an instrumental we weren't sure about. But Pattie Harrison liked it very much, so we decided to leave it on the album"

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: Bungalow Bill was really Richard A. Cooke III, a young college graduate from U.S.A who was visiting his mother in Rishikesh. Nancy Cooke was in India following the same course as the Beatles, and one day they both went tiger hunting. Richard did indeed shoot a tiger, and he happened to tell the Maharishi in front of John and Paul. Of course, John didn't like the story a bit (he had indeed shot the animal hidden in a tree in a wooden platform) and the song came along. The name Bungalow Bill was an amalgamation of "Buffalo Bill" and the bungalows in which they lived in India. Despite its political bent, the recording of the song was seemingly a lot of fun, as almost everyone at the studio joined in for the chorus.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps: George got the idea for the track from the "I Ching" (Chinese book of changes) and decided to write a song with the first line he got out of a book. The line was "gently weeps". The song demonstrates that George had already grown considerably as a composer. Take one of the sessions was a magical acoustic version of the song, yet it was difficult for Harrison to achieve the same magic with more instruments. For the first time, The Beatles brought in an 8-track machine to record a song in Abbey Road, but George wasn’t satisfied. He attempted some backward riffs ala Revolver, but on day two of the recording, while sharing a cab with Eric Clapton, George convinced Eric to play with The Beatles. Clapton initially refused, stating that “no one plays with The Beatles," but George's insistence and the ready availability of his Gibson Les Paul was too big a temptation for Clapton.

Happiness is a Warm Gun: John saw on the cover of a magazine belonging to George Martin the phrase "Happiness is a Warm Gun In Your Hand". Obviously, a song followed. It was a part of Paul’s bent to piece little songs into bigger ones (Uncle Albert and Band on the Run exemplified the trait in later years), but here it was all John. The three distinct parts and the lyrics came out of Lennon’s tripping one night with Derek Taylor, Neill Aspinall and Pete Shoton. Out of this acid brainstorming came the remarkable closer for Side One.

Side Two:

Martha My Dear: Recorded in its entirety by Paul with Martin adding the impeccable scoring at a later date, the track, despite the rumors, was not about Paul's sheepdog Martha. Only the name itself belongs to the shaggy canine. A bit of fun vaudeville along the lines of "When I'm 64."

I'm So Tired: John began to feel so tired while in India. Meditating didn't take that much of an effort, but it sure led to sleepless nights that left as a result, tiring days. The Academy of Meditation was also alcohol and drug-free. John missed both drinks and cigarettes. The song was recorded from beginning to end the same night as Bungalow Bill, adding a bit of realism to the mix. The line muttered at the end of the song by John is "Monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?” which leads straight into -

Blackbird: Simply a blackbird Paul had heard in India, he simply transcribed what the blackbird sang into music. An incredible acoustic track and simply beautiful, just Paul, an acoustic guitar, the ticking of a metronome and some blackbirds. Perfect.

Piggies: Quite in the line of Taxman, George used the Piggies to express his ideas, with piggies as the middle classes. All four Beatles were in the session, though John only participated by putting together some pig sounds in the control room. Remarkable is the baroque feeling of the song with the harpsichord skillfully played by the producer of the session, Chris Thomas, and the string section. Paul's plucking of the bass strings was meant to mimic a pig’s grunting.

Rocky Raccoon: Rocky Raccoon is another example of a wonderful acoustic song written by the Beatles during the India period. In fact, Paul recalled that when he wrote the song he was "sitting on the roof at the Maharishi's". He first got the chords, to later co-write the lyrics with John and Donovan of what was then "Rocky Sasoon." They later decided that Raccoon was a better last name for a Cowboy living in Dakota. It is said that the doctor "sminking" of gin (Paul’s flub of the lyrics), was a real-life character. When Paul chipped his tooth and cut his lip, the doctor that assisted him smank of gin, and that was why Paul's lip was a bit nasty looking in subsequent photos (all of it adding to the Paul is Dead substitution hoax).

Don't Pass Me By: Ringo’s first recorded song has a marked country feeling, much like Ringo's tastes. The final touches to the tune were a sleigh-bell and a fiddle played by a session musician (and not by George Harrison as it has sometimes been written).

Why Don't We Do It In The Road?: AM covered this track as a repetition piece in a series on rock lyrics as poetry. McCartney recorded most of the track on his own with Ringo on drums. Paul's vocals never sounded so Lennon-like).

I Will: Another example of Paul's talent to produce mythical tunes with just an acoustic guitar. Just two acoustic guitars played by Paul, Maracas and Cymbals by Ringo, and John hitting a piece of wood are all the instruments "I Will" needed. Paul’s bass line, the perfect counterpoint to the melody, is actually another layer of the vocals! "I Will" was the first song Paul dedicated to Linda.

Julia: If Paul had shown how exquisite he could be with an acoustic guitar, John was to prove at the end of Side Two that along with his rockers, he was able to write the most intimate, simple and beautiful song dedicated to his mother. At the age of 5 John went to live with his aunt Mimi, and although they were quite distant for years, just as John was becoming an adult, they began to get closer again. John used to do rehearsals with the Quarry Men in her house, and Julia taught him how to play banjo and piano. In 1958 Julia died in a road accident.

- The graphics are from the collection of Rutherford Chang

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