Monday, June 27, 2011

Only A Northern Song: Part 1-I Told You There's No One There

Richard Furnstein: Originally recorded for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Only A Northern Song" manages to be at once an effortless bit of psychedelic filler (as the title cooly states) and a harrowing soundscape of the changing vistas of pop music. George Harrison, irked that his songwriting efforts were published under Lennon and McCartney's Northern Songs Ltd. umbrella, tossed off "Only A Northern Song" as just that--contractual filler in which the harmonies, lyrics, and chords were secondary to the contractual and financial advancement of the Beatles' songwriting craft.

Robert Bunter: This is one of the most terrifying songs in the catalog. The startling fact that it ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP, presumably aimed at young children, qualifies as pure abuse. The little kiddies had so much fun in the theater, watching Old Fred and the charming Beatle lads defend Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. Then they talked their mum and pap into purchasing a copy of the cartoon-adorned LP at Gloanburg's Shilling and Pence. They took it home and were ready to enjoy the goofy-voiced charms of "Yellow Submarine" and "All Together Now." Suddenly, a nightmare organ opens a creaky door into a harrowing, discordant world where the thick voice of creepy Harrison starts addressing them DIRECTLY, confronting the unformed child's mind with the stark reality of what they're doing: listening to a horrible Beatles song. Bleak trumpets and strange echoing little toy noises assault the ear as the grammatically-fractured lyrics torture the mind. Stop! I'm not ready for this. I'm an eight-year-old child! I'm going to have nightmares about this experience. I didn't know music could talk at you.

Richard Furnstein: It's generally fun jabberwocky (well, as much fun as can be had at this dreadful pace) defined by wordplay and dismissive accounts of what makes a song. Well, that is until George removes the furniture from the room as the sound effects begin to envelop the languid backing track as the lyrics "And I told you is no one there" suggests circuitry and patterns have overtaken the songwriting process. Music lacking emotion, the ultimate trip. Syd Barrett would pursue similar themes in his contemporary recording "Bike" (from The Pink Floyd's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn). Barrett describes a host of physical objects (the titular bike, a mouse, a cloak, gingerbread men) that are physically manifestations of his lifestyle (and ultimately his love). The creature comforts are dramatically removed in the final verse where Barrett describes a "room of musical tunes" that create sounds like "clockwork." Again, the mechanical and artificial is the final stage of psychedelia. The bevy of sound effects and tape manipulations become a process; even Ringo's drums are now a slave to a recording process. The rock is dead and the machines are taking over. It's only a song that you request? Let's dial up the machinery, love!

Music lacking emotion, the ultimate trip.

Robert Bunter: This was George's "Glass Onion." Again, both songs directly address the reality of the relationship between a Beatles' record and its listener, in a tone that is markedly sardonic and confrontational. In these lyrics, John and George, minds clouded by boutique-pedigree acid, behold their fans. In three or four short years, they've watched them morph from hysterical 13-year-old girls to pimply, stoned teenagers with dead eyes and dumb thoughts. There's no way to communicate with these mental cripples. Let's just spit on them. After you play these tracks, you have to wipe the Beatlespit off your face. Just sit there and think about how dumb you are. We hate you. The idea that someone might have listened to this song while taking cheap, adulterated street acid is enough to make your imagination hurt. The organ intro alone is making me want to pull out one of my eyes so I can turn it around and stare into the other one. My mind is dead.

Richard Furnstein: "Signed Curtain" by Matching Mole is the atomic fallout of the takeover of the machines. Robert Wyatt's aching voice delivers a beautiful melody over rote piano chords. "This is the first verse" the lyrics tell us. Logically, they later tell us the emergence of the bridge, key changes, and "another part of the song." "Signed Curtain" takes the concept of emotionally resigned songwriting to its naked conclusion. The humans have long since left the room. The machinery has rusted or shut down. The only remaining element is raw awareness of self and the futile nature of artistic expression. It's a harrowing journey, and one that starts with some throwaway track from the Yellow Submarine album of filler and George Martin orchestration. Don't let Paul or Ringo see this, they may just claim that they invented meta songwriting. You know, the same way they invented MTV, house music, recording guitar feedback, Ozzy Osbourne, and casual sex.

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