Friday, June 29, 2012

Get Back

Robert Bunter: There’s something strange about this one. A galloping McCartney rocker with naughty lyrics and a title that referenced the new “back to basics” ethos the Beatles were trying to champion, “Get Back” nonetheless feels oddly flat and thin with a noodly guitar tone, roots-only bassline, dead-sounding drums and Billy Preston’s gently funking electric piano shuffling along in the background. Maybe it’s just something that got lost in the recording – if you were actually sitting there on the Apple rooftop watching them brace themselves against the London wind and shake their hair out of their eyes, it was electrifying. Reservations aside though, this is a great song. Along with “Dig A Pony” and “I’ve Got A Feeling” it exemplifies a certain mood or feeling that I like to call “The Let It Be Mood Or Feeling.” And Richard? I like it.  

Richard Furnstein: Paul populates this snaky roots rocker with the usual gang of misfits, transvestites, and cocaine-toothed miscreants. The same kind of slice of life sketches that defined his earlier non-love songs ("Eleanor Rigby," "Paperback Writer," "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da"), except "Get Back" features a distinctly American cast. Kids with opium eyes, perfect teeth, and shaggy coats covering their frail bodies. Ringo's gallop is the sound of manifest destiny; the iron horse making its way across the great rectangular states. It's a coast to coast love happening. Hitch a ride. Tucson may be out of your way, but you should stay awhile.  

Robert Bunter: Well that’s an attractive vision to be sure, but the Yankee freakshow lyrics were actually hasty revisions to the original version, which was a parody of the right wing anti-immigrant rants of British politician Enoch Powell. Paul was singing lyrics like, “Don’t dig no Pakistanis / taking all the people’s jobs.” It’s a good thing they changed it, although I personally would like to own some alternate-universe Beatle records where they used all the original lyric drafts. “Scrambled Eggs,” the original Tom Tancredo hate speech version of “Get Back,” “He Said He Said” … with the butcher sleeve as cover art and Pete Best on drums. I’m telling you, when it comes to thinking up nonexistent Beatles products I’d like to buy, I’ve got some solid ideas.  

Richard Furnstein: I was hoping to avoid the "Paki" angle, as it makes me uncomfortable (just imagine how George felt: he owned a sitar!). Paul and John had a habit of slipping into "native tongues" for comical effect ("C Moon," ""You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)," "Borrowed Time," "Rocky Raccoon," "Dark Room"). Perhaps this was part of their continued exploration outside of the Liverpool/American rock comfort zone--dip some "chips" into the global stew--but it sometimes feels at odds with the posthumous world peace packaging of The Beatles.

Honestly, I'd rather discuss the naked sound of this recording. It never quite "rocks," there is a hollow quality to the verse after the Billy Preston-fueled introduction. You can almost hear the rock escape into the London air of the rooftop performance. This recording sorely misses The Room (the real fifth Beatle), the best friend that Ringo's drums and Paul's melodic bass lines ever had. We're left with mid range confusion. I'm just going to say it: this is one of the few poorly produced Beatles recordings. No wonder the Ike and Tina and Shirley Scott and the Soul Saxes versions bury the original; you can't say that about many Beatles covers!  

Robert Bunter: You’re right. The low-gloss production style of “Let It Be” (I am resisting the temptation to call it “Get Back With Don’t Let Me Down and 14 Other Songs,” the title of the original, aborted release) adds a very nice feeling to tracks like “Two Of Us” and “Dig A Pony” but leaves “Get Back” feeling a little undernourished. OK, Richard, here it comes: which version do you consider definitive? The Glyn Johns single mix or the Phil Spector album cut?

I’ll tell you what I do buy, though – the warm, inviting funk of ace keyboard player Billy Preston.

Richard Furnstein: I'm going single mix if those are my only options. Paul's vocal has a light airy quality in the mono mix (check Mono Masters, Volume 2) that seems to settle nicely in the steady pulse of Ringo's westward locomotive. My true choice would be the Let It Be...Naked version, which seems to have a much improved mix (despite its unfortunate fade-out). Paul's vocal has a touch more urgency and there is a nice separation on the simple guitar tracks. It's still clearly a final sprint around the track for this aging horse, but it has a nice balance of live energy and late twenties restraint from our heroes.  

Robert Bunter: You are absolutely right. Pop quiz part two: what artist released the “Get Back” single on Apple Records on April 11, 1969? I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t the Beatles.  

Richard Furnstein: Ha, I love it! The answer is clearly The Beatles With Billy Preston! That's a round one of Beatles trivia night question. A fun warm up! Do you buy John's allegation that Paul was directing some of the xenophobia of "Get Back" at Yoko? John says that Paul eyed up his wife every time he sang the "Get back to where you once belonged" line.  

Robert Bunter: I don’t know, man. John could be paranoid, but Paul could certainly be passive-aggressive. I’ll tell you what I do buy, though – the warm, inviting funk of ace keyboard player Billy Preston. I remember being transfixed by his interview segment in the wonderful documentary film “The Compleat Beatles” where he bashfully describes his role on this primal, crucial Beatles cut. He’s sitting there at the piano in a funky suit and he smiles winningly and says, “My solo on Get Back was … basically my creation! They just let me do whatever I wanted, and that made it nice.” I’d like to dedicate this post to the memory of William Campbell Preston and his warm, inviting funk.

Original Beatles fan art by Jeffrey Alan Love (

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wild Honey Pie

Robert Bunter: Most people hear this baffling, one-minute track when they’re listening to the White Album and reach for the fast-forward button on their cassette deck. It’s not difficult to discern why – Paul probably thought this was a delightfully madcap bit of fun which would aerate side one of the Beatles most diverse, wide-ranging grab bag of an album. Unfortunately, he missed the mark. “Wild Honey Pie” is a terrifying, boingy nightmare which sheds an unsettling light on the darker shades and melancholy moods of the White Album. Although I have no independent confirmation of this, intuition tells me that this song originated as a campfire singalong during the meditation retreat in India (not unlike “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” which follows). After a day of silent reflection and a meal of dhakti paste and vhan ghundi crumbles, it was time to cut loose. The faces of the white-robed Beatles and Mike Love glow eerily in the firelight as “Jazz Woodbine” cigarettes were passed surreptitiously around. George peers disapprovingly from his chalet while Paul strums his boingy guitar and John begins to moan and screech in his British old-lady voice. This went on for hours and the natives were terrified. “Let’s remember that for the next LP then, eh?”

George peers disapprovingly from his chalet while Paul strums his boingy guitar and John begins to moan and screech in his British old-lady voice.

Richard Furnstein: They must have looked like real vindaloons! Sure, "Wild Honey Pie" has a heavy dose of the special magic from the jasmine forests of Risikesh. The moment that you described is a huge part of the legend around that fractured recording. To be fair, I imagine all of The White Album's material to take the same path: a song is hurriedly dashed off in a tent or around a campfire. John and Paul delight in playing hooky from the Maharishi's spiritual agenda. A few tugs on a biri laced with organic South Indian cheeb brings on a wave of inspiration. Later, Mike Love pokes his head into the tent to offer some words of advice on the song. Paul nods and gently thanks him for his wisdom, but secretly worries that Love will take credit for the song's composition.

Robert Bunter: You're on the right track, keep going.

Richard Furnstein: Wait, WILD HONEY PIE. I get it. I think Love does deserve a hand on this one. He also encouraged The Beatles to cut the track, saving it from the inevitable dustbin or a b-side for The Grapefruit or Badfinger. You win again, Mike Love. Thank you for the "good night, baby" part on "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Thank you for the achingly beautiful verses of "Don't Got Near The Water. You really set the table for Al Jardine to have a feast on the chorus! Bless you, Mr. Mike Love, for the original Landlocked (non--country rock) version of "Big Sur." It's my favorite Beach Boys recording. And--of course--the role that you played in "Wild Honey Pie," the most uninspired/unlistenable/inconsequential Beatles track of them all.

Robert Bunter: I knew you'd figure it out. That's why God made the Beach Boys!

Friday, June 8, 2012

In My Life

Richard Furnstein: "In My Life" is John's first journey through his past. While future songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Mother," and "Julia" would filter nostalgia through his pain and longing, "In My Life" is all John's surface level memories. It's his painful childhood, sure, but it could just as easily take you to your happiest childhood memories. Black and white waterlogged photos of Fred Lennon, Julia Lennon, and Stuart Sutcliffe haunt this song, but you probably just see photos of your childhood dog and Ms. Boland, your beautiful and pert second grade teacher. The early draft featured more specific references to Liverpool landmarks, including Strawberry Field and Penny Lane, but the final version cuts out those sensitive bits to better convey the general life experience. This is your life, my life, our life. Let's weep for what we've lost and toast to the days ahead.  

Robert Bunter: Cheers, mate! I think you’ve got it right. John offers one of his typically navel-gazing self portraits, yet the presentation allows us all to make the emotional connection. If you list all of John’s many songwriting personas, then cross-reference which songs belong to which persona in a comprehensive pdf file with flow graphs and “pie” chart [attached], you’ll find “In My Life” emerged from the same gentle John mindspace as “Dear Prudence,” “All You Need Is Love,” the background vocal parts on “She’s Leaving Home” (the parents’ voices, a masterpiece of Lennon empathy) and “Because.” This was the most loveable of the many Johns we were blessed to know – a vulnerable yet wise and loving friend-figure. How great would it be to sit around and shoot the breeze with this wistful dreamer, perhaps over a pint of lager in some damp Liverpool dive? The only problem is, how long would it be until the terrifying monster of “Hey Bulldog” and “I Am The Walrus” [see attached chart] reared its bloodshot, leonine head? Not long, I’d wager.  

Richard Furnstein: Not long at all! I'd bet that John's eyes would cloud at the end of pint two (maybe pint three during the chunky Help! years), unleashing the vicious fang-toothed Lennon. A man who would cauterize his crippling fear of rejection and inadequacy with a dangerous blend of drugs, fractured gurus, and rage-filled wit. The pie chart should consider the true golden hour between the contemplative dreamer ("and I'm not the only one") and the self-hating psychopath ("no one I think is in my tree"), a man who was eager to connect his emotions and experiences with other humans. This Lennon Version was refreshingly non-self obsessed--in fact, his most effective use of this voice was decidedly global. "All You Need Is Love" was famously broadcast across the world via satellite. A song like "In My Life" is a much more personal version of a wide-reaching transmission. Sit down and cry, love. We'll get through this together.  

Robert Bunter: Well, whichever Lennon persona we’re dealing with here, he has created an almost painfully beautiful tune. The mood of rose-tinged nostalgia is perfectly evoked by the introductory guitar riff (reminiscent of a young child studiously practicing his music exercises), the chord progression (a blend of fake-classical formality with 1950’s pop conventions and just a few touches of the Beatles’ characteristic harmonic innovations - the flat vii chord on “with lovers and friends”), the arrangement (stop-start drum lurches from Ringo, nice cymbal chimes on the bridge and George Martin’s faux-harpsichord solo – actually, it was a sped-up piano) and the lovely vocal harmonies. John saves his best and most emotionally devastating moment for the very end. I’m talking, of course, about the falsetto “In myyyyyy life” that closes out this beautiful track. John knew that his falsetto was an absolute killer, every bit the equal of Paul’s main vocal trick (glorious throat-shredding rock belting). When John sings really high (“Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” “She’s Leaving Home”), grown men weep. And those men are me.  

I think you’re right about the angels

Richard Furnstein: Those men are we, old friend. The track is lovely. The introductory guitar riff is incredibly beautiful, largely because of the fumbling guitar student aspect. The slow plunking of the open E string at the end of the figure is such a naked and emotional sound. I can hear the entire moment in that one note: that slow and ringing E is pregnant with the paint on the studio wall, the snare ringing delicately, dragons of smoke curling from the ashtrays on top of Vox amplifiers. The rhythm of that repeated note always seems a touch off, or perhaps it is just too delicate and perfect. The first blossom of spring that could be crushed before it fully opens up to the sun. McCartney later claimed that he wrote the music for the track. While it doesn't sound quite like a John backing track (the closest song in the catalog may be "I'm Only Sleeping"), I can't say it really suits McCartney's style either. I'd say that God and all of his angels most likely wrote this track. Geniuses are allowed to have a few moments of divine inspiration, right?

Robert Bunter: I think you’re right about the angels. This is a song that really fits nicely into the warm vibe of Rubber Soul. Despite some jagged emotional shards poking out from “Norwegian Wood,” “Run For Your Life,” “Girl” and “I’m Looking Through You,” overall the album is suffused with a nice emotional warmth, a golden glow. The next record, which I like to call “Revolver,” presents a much sharper, acidic feeling. So, let’s summarize: a beautiful song, written by angels, which melds Lennon’s autobiographical impulses with a larger desire to find universal human connections, nicely recorded in a smoky studio with Vox amplifiers by a nice man who we’d like to share a beer with.  

Richard Furnstein: Thanks for tidying up the place, Robert. Let's publish this and wait for the money to come pouring in.

Original Beatles fan art by Scott McMicken (