Tag Archive: Paul McCartney

Primal Scream

The Beatles died their first death in September of 1969 when John Lennon finally quit the band, but nobody knew it outside their tight circle. They were still on the airwaves with new music, since their final album Abbey Road was released that same month. John, at the behest of the other Beatles, had agreed to keep it a secret and not announce his departure publicly. In the meantime, John released “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey” under the moniker Plastic Ono Band.

As late as April of 1970, the world was laboring under the delusion that the Beatles were still together, safe in the comfort that all was as it should be, despite the lack of a single release in 6 months. John had kept silent like he promised, but then Paul announced his own departure from the band, simultaneously releasing his first solo album, simply titled McCartney.

Paul beat John to the punch with the announcement of the breakup, put the attention solely on himself, and sold lots of records, the songwriting profits from which would go directly to Paul instead of the Lennon/McCartney team. With all three things, Paul left John royally screwed over. As you might have guessed, John was just a wee bit upset.

This latest act of selfishness on McCartney’s part was just the final straw in a long string of issues and complications John had endured throughout his life. They included the death of his mother, trouble at school, the death of Stuart Sutcliffe, his difficult relationship to his first wife Cynthia – and his physical abuse of her – and the baggage from the birth of his son Julian. That’s a lot of riders on the camel of John’s emotions. So what did he do? He screamed a lot.

Theoretically, primal scream therapy ought to work like a charm. You have a bad experience, you scream, you get it all out, and then it doesn’t bother you anymore. Arthur Janov basically says that we accumulate and hold on to traumatic experiences throughout childhood, and they manifest themselves repeatedly until they are finally let go of through some sort of release. That’s where the screaming comes in.

Despite John Lennon’s ringing endorsement (as well as that of a few other celebrities) that caused its popularity to spike in the early 70s, it fizzled soon afterwards due to the lack of definitive outcomes to prove its effectiveness. Real psychotherapists never put much stock in it, and it now exists as the quintessential psycho-fad.

John Lennon’s first proper solo album came directly out of his primal scream therapy. It was officially called John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and it was the very first time the world was looking at John and seeing all his baggage lying nakedly out there for all to see. It’s a complete mess, formless and unregulated, unified only by John’s unhindered exploration of his entire psyche. Imagine has form and appeal that Plastic Ono Band doesn’t, and also has the beauty, grace and focus John found through his experience with primal scream. POB was John in the middle of his scream, and Imagine was where he took a deep breath and said, “let’s see about moving forward.”

However, John was not above personal attacks. There’s just one on Imagine, but it’s a doozy. “How Do You Sleep?” sees John simply letting his vitriol fly, all directed at Paul McCartney. John’s pretty nasty here; he calls Paul “a pretty face,” says he’ll last “a year or two” on his own, and is still holding on to bitterness over the Beatles’ most commercially successful song being the Paul-penned banal toss-off love song “Yesterday.” He insults his prowess as a songwriter, something only a consummate song-spinner like John can feel comfortable doing. The only thing left is calling Paul bad in bed.

The other Beatles must have thought Paul had been a real douche-bag, too. George lent his talents on the slide guitar to “How Do You Sleep?” and guested on 4 other tracks. Ringo was hanging around the studio, but didn’t play. Paul was nowhere to be seen.

Next: John and Yoko – stupidly, sickeningly, beautifully in love.

The Story of the Beatles and Let It Be is one I can really get into. It’s drama that’s perfectly crafted, like a good play or movie. It has several strong characters, a man vs. man conflict, a very compelling MacGuffin (or series of MacGuffins, being the albums Get Back, Abbey Road, and Let It Be), and a kind of resolution. It even has a fake ending. Peter Jackson would be proud.

Like it or not, that story revolves around the tension between John and Paul. For a long time, that tension served them well – one acted as a foil for the other. Their pessimism/optimism thing worked in a paradigm quite nicely, most notably in the song “Getting Better.” But the problem was that as people change, paradigms change as well. At a certain point, that tension between them turned from a simple paradigm to an actual conflict. They never wrote songs together anymore, and that element of give-and-take was gone from both their songwriting and their personal relationship.

Quite poignantly, we have a chronicle of the disintegration of the John and Paul bond (and thus the disintegration of the Beatles) in Let It Be. Abbey Road was their swan song, but Let It Be revealed why that swan song had to come about in the first place.

It starts off with audio footage from the rooftop concert; John saying some nonsense to introduce a song (“Two of Us” on the record, but something else in the actual concert). You can try to figure out who “Charles Hawtrey” is, how this is “phase one,” or what it means for “Doris [to] get[s] her oats.” Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it. In the end, that doesn’t get you any more results that just smiling and saying, “oh, John, you so crazy…”

“Two of Us,” was written by Paul McCartney, supposedly about his near-future wife Linda. Beatles fans the world over interpret it as being about John and Paul, though. That’s helped along by the fact that, except for one line in the bridge, the whole thing is a duet between John and Paul. What seals the deal for me is the line, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” It’s a rather melancholy testament of a friendship that has a lot of mileage on it. It’s been stretched and warped, smashed and battered, but despite everything, it’s still holding on.

Next up is a beautiful and tender moment from John, a simple guitar piece with little adornment called “Across the Universe.” As with most pieces of great art, John acknowledges that he can’t lay complete claim to its ownership. Here’s what he said on the matter.

Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife

“I was lying next to my first wife in bed and I was thinking. It started off as a negative song and she must have been going on and on about something. She’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing, ‘Words are flowing out like endless streams…’ I was a bit irritated and I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than, ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’… The words are purely inspirational and were given to me – except for maybe one or two where I had to resolve a line or something like that. I don’t own it; it came through like that.”

The song’s lyrics are the most poetic John has ever written. They represent a moment where the entire cosmos clicked into perfect order for John, and for a second, he understood everything. Then, the moment was gone, and all he had was the memory, which he made into a song. Good thing he did, too, because now we as listeners can have the same experience of the entire universe making absolute sense when we listen to it.

The phrase “Jai guru deva om” from the lyrics is a Sanskrit saying. It is most commonly paraphrased in English as “victory to God divine,” and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi commonly invoked this phrase meaning “all glory to Guru Dev,” referring to his spiritual teacher. But I find the literal and dry translation to English to be the most beautiful: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.” This is a marvelous statement about the God I know as an illuminator, a gracious giver of knowledge and understanding.

I’ll also mention Fiona Apple’s marvelous cover version. It’s pretty different from the original; it employs some mechanized techno beats and electronic motifs. Fiona’s vocal delivery is slow and spacey, emphasizing the childlike wonder to be found in the lyrics; that combined with the trip-hop music create something new and exciting. I think John would like Fiona’s cover very much.

Also beautiful (if a little cloying) is “The Long and Winding Road.” Paul’s tendency to tip over into the sentimental is in play here, but it’s completely forgivable in this setting. After all, the Beatles were dead, and their fans all dressed in 7 shades of black. Where’s the harm in a little bittersweet nostalgia? The “long and winding road” the song speaks of most easily matches up to the road the Beatles’ took, the crazy journey they went on since John and Paul first got together with their guitars as teenagers. The song is important, if for no other reason, because it moved every mourning Beatles fan from the Depression stage of grief to the Acceptance stage. They go from thinking, “there’s no point in carrying on” to, “farewell, Beatles; you served us well.”

Producer Phil Spector, genius though he was, added unnecessary window-dressings to “The Long a Winding Road” and “Across the Universe.” Orchestral swells and dramatic embellishments work on some songs, but they only interfere with the beauty and grace inherent here. Pure and simple versions can be heard on Let It Be… Naked, Paul McCartney’s 2003 version of Let It Be that preserves the original spirit of the Get Back sessions. By subtracting what Spector added, they lend more grace and wonder to what was already great.

More on Let It Be on Friday!

The Beatles started out that rooftop concert with “Get Back,” followed immediately by another run-thru of the same song. It’s a driving and catchy ditty with great guitar moments. Like a lot of Beatles songs, the lyrical interpretation is pretty loose. I don’t think Paul wrote with specific persons or situations in mind, but things could have been going on subconsciously that came out in the lyrics. Fans talk out of their asses all the time saying “Jojo is really John Lennon” or “Loretta is really Yoko Ono” or “Paul was looking at Yoko every time he sang ‘get back to where you once belonged.’” While that’s a case of fans creating things that probably weren’t there, I do think there was probably something  churning under the surface, as is fitting the Paul pattern.

After two versions of “Get Back” comes “Don’t Let Me Down.” Even though it wasn’t included on Let It Be, it deserves a quick mention here. It’s yet another chronicle of John’s sexual preoccupation with Yoko, but less adolescent than “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”  It’s sweeter, too, and reveals that John’s a colossal romantic sap. While John and Yoko’s relationship wasn’t particularly healthy, they enjoyed an extremely intimate connection and had a passion that a lot of couples could learn from.

After that comes “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a rapturous, soul-filled number. Paul sings like a southern Baptist preacher filled with the Holy Spirit, jittering in a seizure-like spasm. George’s guitar matches him, his notes seeming to quiver with passion. John even contributes, interjecting his own lyrics over Paul’s chords right in the middle. As the song fades out, John and Paul are singing their own individual lyrics to make a pretty gorgeous soup. It reminds me of the “Hard Day’s Night” years, when their collaboration was a wondrous thing to behold. The lyrics are pretty unspecific, but I think “I’ve Got a Feeling” is one of the most spiritual songs the Beatles ever did. It taps into something wild and free, something unknowable.

Next comes a blast of glorious blues, noisy and reckless, filled with smiling abandon. “One After 909” is a song written by John and Paul when that wondrous collaboration was first beginning, when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen. It had been kicking around since then, and was even recorded back in the Please Please Me days, being scrapped shortly after. Finally, it saw the light of day on Let It Be. I don’t think the Beatles were really intending for it to be one of the new Get Back songs, but were enjoying playing live again and the spontaneity it yields.

“Dig a Pony” is next, a song with meaningless lyrics that, as John put it, “sound good together.” I remember one moment from a documentary that’s stuck with me. It’s from the film Imagine: John Lennon that came out in 1988, chronicling the making of John Lennon’s second solo album, Imagine. Like the album that gives it its name, the film is an incredibly honest glimpse into John’s inner workings, personality, and work habits.

The moment: John recorded the album secluded in a mansion off in the forest, and a Lennon fanatic made his way to that very house. He was dirty, unshaven, shabbily dressed, and a little crazy. John and Yoko met him in the driveway, and there they had a discussion/argument with him in which it really came to bear that John was not all the things his fans expected him to be. This was something John had struggled with ever since he became famous, his public persona being something that he couldn’t quite control. This fan quoted some lyrics from “Dig a Pony,” citing them as inspirational and life-changing. John shook his head in dismay and said, “It’s just words! Words that sound good together!” Clearly, the fan was incredibly disappointed in the man who, until a few seconds ago, had been his idol. The scene ends with John inviting him inside for a bite to eat.

Next comes a snippet of “God Save the Queen,” yet another example of the Beatles being energized and a little giddy at the anything-goes live setting they were in. Then just comes more versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back.” The police then promptly shut them down.

Thursday: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.”

A Downward Spiral

The Rolling Stones, beyond all else, are a personality-based band. A lot of the best bands and artists are – The Beatles, David Bowie, U2, the Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday – and it’s something marketing executives and image creators know all too well. It’s not just the music that people hear – it’s who’s making the music, too. People connect so much more with a song if they know the name and see the face of person singing it.

Brian Jones

Left without a connecting face, the Rolling Stones would still have been successful, but I think that over half of their fame came from Mick Jagger and his mind-blowing stage presence. The Stones were one of the innovators of image and personality in rock music. Not only Mick, but Keith and the others had distinctiveness as well, including Brian Jones.

Brian was unique within the Stones for his blonde hair compared to the sandy to dark brown of the others. His teardrop-shaped guitar stuck in listeners’ minds, too. But the capstone of his fame was in the form of his tragic death. He died at age 27, but at that time, he was only the 2nd super-famous musician to die at that age. The real notability of his demise came from the manner of his death: drowning in a swimming pool.

Let’s back up a bit. The story arguably starts with the arrival in the Stones’ lives of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. He recognized early on that Jagger had stage presence coming out his ears, and also that the most successful bands (meaning the Beatles and the Beach Boys) wrote their own songs. Thus, he directed the career of the band in those directions.

Brian Jones started the band (and came up with the name) only a few years earlier, and was the de facto leader. His original idea for the Rolling Stones was to cover the blues and boogie numbers by black American musicians he so loved. The novelty of white British guys playing soulful American classics was enough to get them a name. Brian was the top dog until Andrew started shaking things up by having Mick take the lead in their shows, and by encouraging Mick and Keith to start writing songs together. Brian, unfortunately, was slowly being left out in the cold.

By 1968, Brian Jones was only in the band because he hadn’t been kicked out yet. He contributed almost nothing to the music; the other band members even turned off his guitar sometimes. When he interacted with them, he was distant at best, hostile and sniping at worst. Even so, his friendships were increasing outside the band with people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon. He was the unofficial emcee at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, along with his then-girlfriend, Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.

Jones’s last significant contribution to the Stones was playing slide guitar on “No Expectations,” though he also played little parts on the Let It Bleed tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “You Got the Silver.” Preceding the production of Let It Bleed, he had numerous troubles with the law over drugs. A judge had mercy on him after a jury found him guilty of possession, and gave him a fine instead of jail time, and there were also rumors of a conspiracy against Jones and the rest of the Rolling Stones. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the police wanted to make an example of all the Stones in order to deter the British public from drugs.

The final straw came when the Stones were going to tour America again in support of Let It Bleed (slated for a July 1969 release) and Brian was denied a work visa. At that point, Jagger and company had had enough; they hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones on guitar, and Jones moved into a mansion in East Sussex where he descended in a wild downward spiral of drugs, sex, and misadventure that was his eventual undoing.

“Elvis didn’t expectorate on his fans!”

Let that be a lesson to you, kids: don’t do drugs. But don’t take my word for it; ask Brian Jones. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. ‘Cause he’s dead.

Hey, do you like my impression of the dad on Freaks and Geeks?

Monday: The death of the 1960s.

In our exploration of The White Album, we come again to George. His side two offering, “Piggies,” is a baroque-esque tune (kitchen sink, much?). It features a riff played on a harpsichord, and the song has cutting and satirical lyrics. The term “piggies” refers to the rich, not to the police. “Pig” as a pejorative term for a policeman has been around since the 19th century, though it rose in popularity during the 60s and 70s among the anti-establishment movement. For the most part, though, it’s an American term. Here, much is made of the ridiculous and harmful behavior of the corporate-minded. It’s even a little violent, though the line “what they need’s a damn good whacking” was added by George’s mother. The song uses a mocking tone both lyrically and musically, even having John make pig snort sounds at points. Frankly, it’s hard to take seriously.

Speaking of hard to take seriously, the next song is “Rocky Raccoon.” It’s even sillier than ”Piggies” and has much less serious subject matter. Here’s another instance of Paul talking out his ass. It’s about a cowboy (honestly) named Rocky Raccoon, who’s named that simply because Paul thought it sounded like a cowboy name. Once again, a lot of the things I don’t like about Paul’s songwriting coalesce into one incredibly infectious tune. Like with so many other Paul songs, it just wore me down. It’s the Oreos all over again.

Another irritating/endearing quality of Paul’s songs is at work in “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Going to India must have been a singularly huge experience for all four Beatles. They must have seen and experienced things they wouldn’t get in any other time or place. Such occasions are simply bursting with potential art for the right mind. John wrote many songs based on his time in India, and so did Paul. But while John wrote about a plea for a friend to rejoin the living and the destruction of nature, Paul wrote about monkeys screwing.

The lyrics of “In the Road” don’t actually take us by surprise considering its dunderheaded title and near-complete lack of lyrics that aren’t in the title. But as is commonly the case with Paul, it’s not about the song but the song-craft. The music and the vocals more than make up for the lack of other elements. I really don’t know why; it’s nothing more than a 12 bar blues repeated 3 times. Against all odds, it gets under my skin with alarming speed, and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs (provided no one is listening, of course).

The sole Ringo moment comes between “Rocky” and “In the Road” with “Don’t Pass Me By.” It’s a pleasant surprise. Most other songs with Ringo on lead vocal are cute and harmless at best, groan-inducing at worst. But here, Ringo puts on a pretty good show. Even more impressive is that it’s the first completely Ringo-penned song the Beatles released. Maybe that was all he needed, to take the reins and have total control.

John with his mum Julia

“I Will” and “Julia” close out the first side, two tender love songs from Paul and John respectively. Paul writes a heart-warming yet exciting pop tune with “I Will” that features some great guitar work. “Julia” is the only Beatles song that John recorded completely on his own with no involvement from the other Beatles. It’s a tribute to his mother who died when John was 17. In a naked and unguarded moment, which was rare from John until Plastic Ono Band, I think he’s trying to explain his relationship with Yoko to the spirit of his mother. John was always very close to his mother, and I think her death changed him into the person we’re all familiar with. Had she not died at that crucial time in his life, we would indeed have seen a very different John, the Beatles, and music history in general.

On Wednesday: can you imagine Paul as a heavy metal rocker?

Most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t really involve the original concept of a fictional band, but the concept works anyway because of the transformation the band was going through. They may not be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they’re not the Beatles anymore, either; at least, not as everyone knew them.

A good example of this is “Getting Better.” It starts off sounding a lot like Rubber Soul and Revolver-era Beatles, or most notably like the single “Penny Lane” which had been released earlier that year. But it also adds elements like a tambura and the strings of a pianet being struck with a mallet. There’s also some great interplay between the singers in the chorus. Paul sings “it’s getting better all the time,” to which John responds “it can’t get no worse.” That sums up the optimism/pessimism relationship that the two had quite concisely.

The Beatles are not without their foibles, though. “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” are two missteps, slight though they are. I can feel Paul’s twee cutesiness creeping up again on “Hole.” I gotta give him credit for it not showing up at all thus far in the album, and “Hole” is mostly harmless in the full scope of things. “She’s Leaving Home” is another matter. It cranks up the melodrama to a groan-worthy level. Then there’s “When I’m Sixty Four.” I shake my head every time I hear it (and only occasionally bop along to the infectious melody). “64” was the first song recorded for Sgt. Pepper, and was actually written by Paul years earlier. The tape of Paul’s vocals is actually sped up a little in order for him to sound younger, which fits the youthful romanticism of the song.

John fares a lot better than Paul on this record. Gone were the days of glorious collaboration between the two that produced “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Occasionally they make a song together with stupendous results (“One After 909” comes to mind), but for the most part they work independently.

the circus poster that inspired “Mr. Kite”

“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is one of the things a great piece of art should be. It’s based on a very old carnival poster from the 1800s. The poster talks about somersets and hogsheads and other thing I can’t understand, meanwhile guaranteeing that their show will be the “grandest of the season!” The lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” are taken almost directly from the text of this poster. John bought it from an auction when the Beatles were filming a promo video for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The song really goes over the top to evoke the entire carnival and county fair experience, employing harmonium, glockenspiel and some complex organ sound effects. The middle eight uses a vast collage of fairground organs and calliope music all jumbled together. All these recordings were literally chopped up with scissors and taped back together for the final master. The mangled remains of the tape are what we hear.

Amazingly, John once said he “wasn’t proud of that” and “was just going through the motions.” Even John’s apathy can create great songs. He’s like the best painter in the world who really wants to be an electrician.

In the same vein is “Good Morning Good Morning.” In both of these songs, I find John’s dissatisfaction with conventional instruments and ways of recording to be quite refreshing. “GMGM” features Sound Incorporated doing the distinctive brass parts, but brass instruments are just the beginning of John’s thinking outside the box. It also features animal noises at the beginning and end of the song, purposefully arranged so that each animal is able to “devour” the one before it. It ends up sounding like some demented farmyard. The song also shifts time signatures in a mad, constant rush that never lets you get comfortable.

On Friday: Hey, George writes songs, too!

Salt and Pepper

When I decided to crawl out of my Beatles-hating phase in college, I went to Napster (remember Napster?) and picked up a somewhat random assortment of Beatles songs. The requirements were that they had to be songs from Sgt. Pepper or later, and I had to have heard of the song titles before. This included both versions of the song “Sgt. Pepper,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” and “A Day In the Life.” Upon listening to those a few times, I decided that I needed the whole album in order to put them in context.

Looking back, that was one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. It ranks right up there with going to London when I was in college and with marrying Ruthanne.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles – 6/1/1967

A revolution was ready to take place in the minds of the four members of the Beatles. All the madness and fervor the last 4 years had brought had taken a toll on John, Paul, George and Ringo. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom in record time, gotten to the summit, looked out over the landscape and said to each other, “I guess we’d better keep moving.”

At that point, in mid-1966, the four of them had had enough: of rock and roll stardom, and of each other. First they did something unheard of for an act that big: they stopped touring. And I don’t mean they took a break or something; they stopped. Even today, that’s pretty weird. It causes me a little incredulity to think that the biggest, most important albums the Beatles made were after they stopped touring. John had a little part in a movie, How I Won the War, and immersed himself in the art scene. This was where he met Yoko. Where would we be if that hadn’t happened? Ringo spent more time with his wife and kids, and Paul co-wrote the score for a film, and even won an award for it. George, for the first time, went to India with Ravi Shankar for what passes for a spiritual awakening. Later, he would convince the other three to go, but more on that later.

At the heart of this, I think, is that all four of them were tired of being the Beatles, and wanted to be someone else. So in late 1966, they started doing just that. On a plane ride from Kenya to England, Paul got the idea for an alter-ego band, characters to stand in for the four of them not just socially, but also musically. On that very flight, tour manager Mal Evans asked what the S and P pots on their meal trays were, and Paul simply responded, “salt and pepper.” I think a light bulb must have turned on in his head.

The original concept for Sgt. Pepper was a concert performed by this fictional band; the four members even had alternate names, and different colored uniforms like superheroes. This didn’t take very long to get abandoned, though it didn’t completely disappear. Much of the visual aesthetic is still intact, even if most of the music doesn’t directly reflect it. My Chemical Romance was taking a page directly from the Beatles (borderline stealing) when Gerard Way invented the Fabulous Killjoys. It was a brilliant idea because it allowed the Beatles to experiment in any direction they pleased. As a result, their creativity rose to meet the opportunity.

Tomorrow: meet the Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Changing the Game

From the time they were teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been credited together for songs that either of them had written. They commonly wrote together, with John writing the verse-chorus part and Paul adding the middle eight, or some such thing, but they just as commonly wrote songs completely on their own. Their collaboration was such that most of the time they paid no real mind to who wrote what. It was the song that was important, not where it came from. So the Lennon/McCartney credit was very prolific by 1965.

By Rubber Soul, however, they had started to distinguish themselves from their songwriting partner. From the beginning, you could usually tell which of them took the lead in the writing from who had the lead vocal. Starting with Rubber Soul and Revolver, though, it really started to show with the style of the lyrics. John was usually more acerbic and sarcastic than Paul, having had a more difficult childhood. Paul was a little more of a child of privilege, and thus had a more optimistic outlook on life than John did. Those different outlooks eventually became undeniable.

Lord Byron (club foot not pictured)

Take the songs “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Doctor Robert.” The Paul McCartney tune is a gentle, soothing love song, unabashed in its overarching sweetness. Like an Elizabeth Barrett-Browning poem, it doesn’t pull any punches on the gooey feelings. It has a splendid beginning-middle-end structure to it, anchored on three points (“here,” “there,” and “everywhere”). It works on the same level as a Shakespearian sonnet, and reveals that Paul McCartney is just a little lovesick puppy. He’s like a modern day Lord Byron, without the club foot or the penchant for choir boys.

“Doctor Robert,” on the other hand, is about drugs.  On all the band’s tours, John Lennon was the keeper of all the pills, and the other band members went to him when they wanted a fix. He wrote “Doctor Robert” about the band’s drug dealer, which was himself.  It’s acerbic, witty, and filled with John’s crooked sense of humor. It stands in direct contrast to Paul’s personality, which is sunny and optimistic. John wrote a lot of love songs (“If I Fell,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Please Please Me”), but Paul has a mastery of that material John could never fathom. On the other hand, Paul could never write a song like “Doctor Robert.”

On Revolver, the Beatles were breaking out of their previous mold, and even showing a little disrespect for it. While the girls who were going gaga over them had probably never tried an illegal drug in their lives, the Beatles released one of their druggiest songs up to that point with “She Said She Said.” John wrote it about Peter Fonda, who said he knew “what it’s like to be dead” while Peter, John, George and many others were sitting in a giant bathtub in an estate in Beverley Hills, all of them tripping on acid. Fonda, who was showing them his old bullet wounds, was thought of by George as being “very uncool.” This incident is probably also the basis for “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which John described as “another of my throwaways… fancy paper around an empty box.”

Amidst the swirl and confusion that most of the album is mired in, we have “For No One,” a moment of surprising maturity and sophistication. Paul actually cuts deeper than he normally does with this song. He describes the end of a relationship with some rather poignant insight. Later comes the Paul song “Got to Get You Into My Life,” where Paul’s twee tendencies crystallize perfectly. Sung with passion and optimism, it’s active instead of passive, if a bit of a backwards step from the bold new direction the Beatles were clearly going in.

The album finishes off with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a twisting, gyre-and-gimble type of song. Written by John and with lyrics largely based on Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience, it’s the single boldest statement by the Beatles up to this point. It says, “Throw away everything that you know about the Beatles.” From here on out, all bets were off.

The Beatles changed the game when they first came on the scene, making it suddenly plausible for all those snot-nosed rock and roll kids playing in garages to make it, and make it big. Revolver was another game-changer, shifting the public’s idea of them as simply the Fab Four. And it prepared the world (although insufficiently) for the far-out freakishness of Sgt. Pepper.


Listening to Revolver now, I’m struck by the amazing stance that the Beatles had at this particular time. The back foot was lifting off from their pop past and moptop heyday, while the front foot was just about to touch down on the strange ground they would travel on Sgt. Pepper. They were keenly aware of everyone who was expecting – in some cases demanding – that they be exactly the same as they had been since they first set foot on American shores. And for those people, you have tracks like “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “For No One.” But the majority of the music takes forays into the strange and groundbreaking. In that, the Beatles are saying,” Look, we’re changing. We’re in the process of it. So you can either come along for the ride, or get left behind.”

“Yellow Submarine” caused me a lot of grief. Back when I was a Beatles Hater, I would say “I can’t get into a band whose most significant contribution to the world was ‘we all live in a yellow submarine.’” It was a wrong step saying that was their biggest contribution when it obviously isn’t so. Again, though, I didn’t care whether what I was saying was true, only that it distinguished me from everyone else. I still think the lyrics are silly and a little ridiculous, but the song fits right in with the fantastical and bizarre tone this album has.

Songs like “Yellow Submarine” inject some fun, whimsy, and just-plain wackiness. Granted, the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” probably inspire more scratched heads than wide smiles, but the bouncy, sing-along rhythm is pretty infectious, and that’s really why it has endured.

That infectiousness is what made the Beatles big in the first place, and it is part of what keeps us talking about their music to this day. I would say that no living person has more of a gift for writing superglue-in your-head songs than Paul McCartney. Sometimes they’re instantaneous things, and sometimes they wear you down with their undefeatable catchiness. “Good Day Sunshine” is one such song. Paul’s blazing optimism and way-too-twee sense of the world being a wonderful place is all over this track. It almost made me gag the first time I heard it.

Let me give you an example. You know how if you eat too many Oreos all at once, your stomach rebels against you and you don’t feel like eating for the rest of the day? The first time you do that, your Oreo limit is about 6 or 7. “Good Day Sunshine” is like having a month’s worth of Oreos all at once. It’s loaded with calories and a ton of the most useless kind of fat, all in just over two minutes. But here’s the thing. For whatever reason, you do the Oreo binge a second time. And then a third, fourth and fifth time. And then a 10th. And then a 20th. Eventually, your Oreo limit is about 45. You’re sucking down the whole bag without batting an eye. “Good Day Sunshine” (and the larger part of Paul’s Beatles catalog) works the same way. You keep coming back to it, and you don’t even know why. Eventually, the sappy , sugary sweetness that Paul does so well is not only tolerable, but expected – nay, needed.

The Beatles – Revolver – 8/5/1966

Even though the Beatles became the most popular band in the world once they cleaned themselves up and started doing sappy love songs, it wasn’t until later that they became great. Around 1967 they shocked the world with their daring (and out-of-left-field) originality by having one of the most famous identity crises of all time. With the release of Revolver, they were right on the cusp.

“One, two, three, four:” a standard opening for a song, especially for Paul McCartney, who had done that on many Beatles recordings previously. But this time, there was a strange tape loop in the background, and the voice counting sounded like it had emphysema, or like an alien. Then, the harsh, stabbing guitar licks that open “Taxman.” To a listener in 1966, this must have been a naturally uncomfortable moment. He must have thought, “Wait a sec. What happened to ‘baby you can drive my car?’ Where did this ‘one for you, nineteen for me’ stuff come from?” Instead of sweet but rocking love songs, we get George Harrison being angry that he’s paying about 95% of his earnings in taxes. I can see people being very confused.

Then “Eleanor Rigby,” and the confusion increases tenfold. Completely orchestral music, and lyrics about an insane dead woman and the minister who was the sole attendant to her funeral; grim stuff.  More than that, “Eleanor Rigby” was unlike any pop song released as a single that had ever come out. It didn’t actually feature any of the Beatles on instruments; only Paul singing lead, John and George singing some harmonies, and an orchestra performing all the instrumentation. Clearly, there’s no sign of the Beatles as listeners knew them.

“I’m Only Sleeping” is at least a slight return to Beatles normalcy, with an at once bouncy and laconic rhythm, and lyrics about laziness. But with “Love You To,” we’re right back where we started in a song driven by a sitar, of all things. What the hell happened? There’s no squishy love, no simple romanticism, no “’Til There Was You”-esque moments at all.

None of this was on my mind the first time I listened to Revolver. In fact, when I first checked the Beatles out in college, I didn’t even bother with anything pre-Sgt. Pepper. I missed out on some real revelation, since familiarizing myself with their bubble-gum catalog would have given me a deeper appreciation for the turn they took in 1966. Besides that, I would have actually known that they took that turn in ’66, not ’67. It’s only a difference of ten months, but it’s significant.