Thursday, April 28, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 11--Pen Ultimate


After enduring the irascible sessions for the aborted Get Back album, the Beatles--mainly Macca--were eager to actually enjoy recording an album. The result was Abbey Road, which would have made a fabulous swan song. Those abandoned songs just wouldn't be denied, though.

But that's next review. This? Is my favorite Beatles album. George Martin agrees. Let's go.

"Come Together"--There persist among us those fans who genuinely believe that the real James Paul McCartney--Paul to his friends, Macca to fangirl bloggers--perished in 1966, most likely via a car crash. To keep the Beatle train chugging, EMI replaced him with a "Faul" in the ultimate reeking piss-take. The people who accept even the possibility of such a scenario, much less the ones who swear by it, are the same sort convinced that their government is gradually poisoning them through dairy products.

I don't laugh at those people. Many of them have procreated, and the implications are too depressing to allow for even a rueful chuckle. On a lesser scale of analytical apeshittery, and thus on a higher scale of hardy-har-hars, is the belief that the "he" referred to in each verse of "Come Together" is in fact a different member of the Beatles.

The thing about free association writing is that the creative mind, no matter how deliberately altered it is, contains certain names, words and phrases unique to the individual writer. Break on through to the other side like some drugged-up Kool-Aid Man all you desire, you will be taking some of your old bags with you.

The best example in "Come Together" is the third verse, which certain listeners believe is Lennon describing himself. "He got walrus scumble/He got Ono sideboard." Referencing one of his most famous compositions and then his infamous girlfriend alongside randomly selected words is just the mating of the comfortable and familiar with the nonsensical. It gives the illusion of subtext, but that's all it is.

The "old flat top" of the first verse is George. "He's one holy roller," well wow, that's George to a tee! Next verse, "He got toe-jam football/He got monkey finger/He shoot Coca-Cola." This is, apparently, Paul. I have seen explanations that "monkey finger" represents his bass playing style. If I believed in this crap, I'd say the fourth verse, with its mention of a roller coaster and the guy who's "got to be good-lookin' 'cause he's so hard to see" was Paul. You know..."Helter Skelter"? Paul being "the cute one"? Yeah.

What's true is that "Come Together" was inspired by Timothy Leary's planned campaign against Ronald Reagan for governor of California. His slogan: "Come together, join the party."

What's also true, although one could be forgiven for sneering it off as urban legend, is that Lennon is saying "Shoot me" at the beginning of the song (and in between verses), with the last word muted by a bass note. (It can be heard at certain times with a good pair of headphones, though.) Unsettling in retrospect, Lennon's plea is for a fix, not a bullet.

Give ya more truth--what a boss way to begin a wreck-hard. The sound of the self, righteous. Clear as honey and sweet as vinegar.

"Something"--Punches are too puny. This is like a one-two flame toss.

A song that borrows its first line from the title of a James Taylor song shouldn't succeed. But if you look at that as a pre-emptive strike against Taylor's own shameless thievery (especially against Carole King), then what a divine decision.

The best song George ever wrote as a member of the Beatles and I mean damn did he get to hold his nuts for this one. He even made Macca back down his shit in the studio, insisting to Paul the never-pleased that a nice unobtrusive bass line would suffice: "I don't need you gallivanting string-wise all over my one unimpeachable masterpiece, James." A chastened McCartney could do little but fling hands skyward and mutter, "Hey man, I'm just trying to keep the band together, man."

All the instruments--guitar, bass, drums, organ courtesy of Billy Preston--are locked in an exquisite slow dance. Harrison's solo is sensual in the literal definition of the word. It's that rare piece of post-seventeenth century art that features the word "woo" and doesn't sound corny. "Something" is the sort of love song that can make a person feel terrible for not even believing in love, although the song's intent is nothing of the sort.

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"--Ooh ooh, a generally despised Paul song, I wonder if Jenn likes, nay, loves it!

Hop on board The Whimsy Express, which many say is flimsy at best. The other three Beatles despised "Maxwell's," half due to the actual song, half due to the hours upon hours logged in the studio until the song met its creators exacting standards. Many fans find the track cloying, but that's down solely to the jaunty piano and actual goddamn anvil chorus. The lyrics detail demented days in the life of one Maxwell Edison, medicine major, and the people he disposes of via his shiny weapon. Lennon wrote a song like that, he woulda been praised for pushing the boundaries of pop. McCartney does it, folks nearly rip their tongues to shreds from all the razor-sharp vitriol. Another top-hatter for Penguin-mad grannies!

Big surprise, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a brilliant bit of waffle. Fluffy but yummy. Rhyming "oh oh oh" with "Jo-o-o-oan," just for starters, now you might think I'm being facetious, but that vocal cadence is indicative of a greater mind at work. It dares the listener to refuse/resist. I've never been able to.

There's a famous goof during the second verse, when McCartney was introduced to Lennon's Mr. Moonlight from across the studio. Paul can be heard to crack first during "waits behind," then can barely hold back a full-fledged rip-snort whilst delivering the word "writing" immediately after. It cannot be coincidence that Lennon dropped trou during the "waits behind" line.

"Oh Darling!"--Being in love is either shit or the shit, but that's life. It's all cornbread and apple butter till your massive insecurities take the reins and convince you that the veil is about to be lifted, the bottom is due to drop out any second, and your paradise will turn nightmarish. I always believed Paul when he sang about falling apart without that special someone. Christ, look how many pieces he shattered into when Linda passed away. (No whole man would marry Heather Mills, I don't think.)

The Eagles' "Please Come Home For Christmas" jacked this bar-ready blues something fierce. I also hear it in "Mashed Potatos" by Brak, but as with so much, it's probably only me.

"Octopus' Garden"--If Ringo ain't tryin', I ain't either.

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"--And we're back! Welcome to eight minutes of promise delivery. John's caught in a barely-fathomable tangle of lust-struck guilt, dopesick depression, self-destructive behaviors, hostility, pessimism, feeble self-esteem, obsessive fantasies, and identity tremors.

The last three minutes are worth the prolonged wait, as the multi-tracked axes fell bone-white trees that the peckish plucks and waifish keys only carved initials into with shaky hands.

"Here Comes The Sun"--How clean are Harrison's songs on Abbey Road? Did you put your tunes in the Shine-O Song-O?

He's enjoying some well-deserved diamond times away from the drudgery of commodity. Ties never suited the freest Beatle anyway. "It's all right." Well, hell--can't get much better than that, right?

(John doesn't appear on this one, as he was recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash.)

"Because"--Equipped with a Moog of one's own, sky is the limit.

Although some people think that Yoko Ono is a talent-free art-groupie, few people know that she is a classically trained pianist. After playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" for John one evening, he was struck and asked her to play it backwards. A few sensible tweaks here and there, and he had "Because." Paul and George both called it their favorite song on the album, and while I don't agree, I get it. Those three-part harmonies soar past all the crap.

Ah, it's been a nice album so far. It's the most relaxing album, not light as a lullaby, nor heavy as a dirge, but the weight is enough to leave a phantom tingle on your skin long after it's been removed.

Then the medley.

Oh Abbey Road medley. Don't I love it madly. It's a clusterfuck of bell chimes and mustard guts. Snapshots of a majestic portrait. Best game of hopscotch ever played.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" kicks it off. Brian Jones, formerly of the Rolling Stones and planet Earth, may or may not have played sax here. He had a fuckload of illegitimate kids. That's the one thing I know about that guy. George plays xylophone, that's for sure. Frigging xylophone? Beatles, you the craziest. (By mainstream standards, anyway.) More Macca sing-sweet. What's better than chocolate covered cherries? Cherry-covered chocolates!

"Sun King" munches on those throughout the entirety of his day. Part English, Spanish, and Italian, it's a more exotic "Because," and even more ventricle-seizing besides. "Mean Mr. Mustard" is grittier but not much crunchier, and if we're being really real son, I always thought Mr. Mustard got a raw deal here. He's very filthy, isn't he? I mean he just sounds like a typical dirty old bastard who sleeps in the park and the occasional road-hole. Bind him to you with promises and give the fucker a bath, I bet he's okay. Or would have been. Dude's gotta be well dead by now.

Oh here we go. Well, we've been going, but now it's rocket number nine take off. "Polythene Pam" was originally intended for The White Album (so was "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," wouldn't that have been amazing) but it was clearly made for this medley. It suffuses the room with light and heat and some of my favorite rhymes in a Beatles song (second verse especially). John's got a sloppy, lurid tongue all over this seething snippet. When you want pretty, call Paul. Yeah yeah yeah.

"She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" is Paul coming when called, but this is not pretty. Pretty fan-damn-tastic, yes, but there aren't many human acts more indelicate than climbing into or out of somewhere through a window. (Your humble blogger speaks from experience. For the whole story, you'll have to wait for Spirit Desire, the sequel to No Setlist. And that'll be a bit of a wait. Please feel free to let your imagination run wild and free in the meantime.) Paul has always said that the inspiration came from the legendary "Apple Scruffs," the invariably female fans that would keep vigil outside Abbey Road Studios and the Apple Corps building to get a glimpse (or more) of their idols. Seems one of their gang made it into Macca's home one day via the method of the title, but no harm done.

Cool enough story, and believable to boot, but Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder claims he provided the genesis when he regaled Paul with a tale about a groupie who scurried into the band's homestead through a window. Pinder also claims Paul was so inspired he improvised the first line of the song on the spot. Now, I don't want to doubt so brazenly the guy who introduced the Beatles to the mellotron, an instrument that blessed several of their best songs, but...I doubt the Moody Blues guy. So, so brazenly. But shit, this song is so cool I want in on the origin story too. I think I'll rewrite the Spirit Desire chapter so that it takes place in 1969 instead of 2009, I end up telling the story to someone in the airport who knows Paul McCartney, he/she tells Macca, Macca writes classic song, I go on the Internet to take some credit, and get doubted brazenly, not least because, it's 1969 and what the hell is an Internet?!

What is the truth? Who can say. It's like John said in that infamous Playboy interview: "Somebody came in the window."

"Golden Slumbers" is up next. Paul gets flogged left right and center for carrying that light weight longer than most. Here he borrows from a Thomas Dekker poem, which suffers in comparison to John pilfering the ferociously colorful imagery of Lewis Carroll. But can you hear Paul trying to tell you about how he's the walrus? Makes about as much sense as John offering to sing me a lullaby.

"Carry That Weight" is a buoyant sing-along (you can really hear Ringo's nasal power in the chorus, there) that cleverly refers back to the melody of "You Never Give Me Your Money" not once but twice. The momentum it gathers can only mean relative pandemonium ahead.

"The End" really is not, but oh it should have been.

"Oh yeah! All right! Are you gonna be in my dreams! Tonight..."

Rock and roll has to do with fucking. Fucking, on occasion, has to do with love. I fucking love this song, this medley, this album, this band.

Everyone has that moment...that moment when they feel like Homer Simpson in the car trying to describe the effect classic rock radio has on them. Just drive the car, Dad.

The begrudging drum solo is the most exquisite suspense, because no matter how well Ringo pulls it off, something even more wicked that-a way awaits. A pair of ill-intentioned hands slash the air in the name of love. Sounds about life. More solos, two-bar tradeoffs between the boys, spreading that love around. (For the curious: it goes Paul first, then George, than John. Lather, rinse, repeat.)

And in the end....

"Her Majesty"--The ultimate in anti-climax. A 23-second long not-ode to Liz dear that chases the puffy-tailed pup round a bit before petering out. It was intended to be part of the medley, between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam," but the band--or Paul, like the two weren't practically interchangeable at the time--decided it didn't work. Decide for yourself.

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