The 1960’s really began on Sunday evening, February 9, 1964, at 7:30 pm EST on CBS television when the Beatles made their first North American appearance in front of seventy million Americans who watched them on The Ed Sullivan Show. Just seventy-nine days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, four impossibly young musicians from Liverpool, England, reminded every American under twenty-five that we all had so much to live for.
My parents’ generation, to put it mildly, was not pleased by the featured performers who dominated America’s airwaves that night. My father originally thought that the Beatles were some sort of a Soviet plot to take over the Western world. We kids just thought that the band was incredibly “boss”.
Within a week, I had purchased their initial US release, Meet the Beatles at the Music Box, a local record store in my hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Within a month, my first Fab Four record had received enough scars in its grooves to receive a Purple Heart. (In reality, a palpable series of scratches in the bridge section of “Not A Second Time” of my copy of Meet the Beatles was so embedded in my memory that I was stunned to hear an uncluttered version of the tune, sans skips, when I finally purchased it as a cassette eight years later).
Over the course of the next two Sunday evenings that February, the Beatles continued to be featured on the Sullivan Show. During those moments, an entire generation of Americans sat utterly transfixed in front of our TVs when the magic played itself out on live TV. At school the next day, my classmates and I couldn’t wait to compare notes with one another. The girls all loved Paul; we boys adored John – although a handful of others preferred George or Ringo.
By the end of that month, one of my neighbors, Jimmy Fay, had purchased the first Beatle wig on our street. Within five years, an entire generation of young people was sporting long hair – including myself. Ultimately, the Beatles were not just a musical phenomenon; they shaped our culture and altered the course of their time. When they officially broke up as a group in April 1970, the Beatles’ dissolution was the lead story on the front page in every newspaper in the world including The New York Times. Even now, more than a half a century after “the four lads from Liverpool” suddenly appeared out of nowhere like a scorching comet, the memory of those times still seems to light up the sky.
At my fortieth high school reunion, one of my classmates marveled at how fortunate we were to have literally grown up during the era of the Fab Four. “Do you remember, Kell, when we stood in line outside the Music Box in June 1967, and waited for the store to open because they had just received the first copies of Sergeant Pepper in town?” I smiled broadly and then reminded my buddy that we did the same thing for The White Album a year-and-a-half later.
For most people today, however, they were either too young or not even born when the Beatles made their mark in history. What remains, in the end, is their music, which sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did when it was first released a half century ago.
So how do you scratch the surface on a musical facade that was as deep and as broad as the Great Plains? You randomly pick and choose and then dig deep down – as I attempt to do here. I could literally compose a chunky book on the band’s 186 recorded songs over a nine-year span – and still not do it justice. After all, the Beatles’ staggering range – a Whitman’s Sampler of delectables that set them apart from any other rock band in history – is partly what made them so unique. Here I will try to educate the novice and enlighten the well-informed in order to taste a few of the delicacies that can be found in the margins of their wondrous songs.
“Penny Lane” – Recorded in seven separate sessions commencing on the morning of December 29, 1966 and concluding in the late evening on January 17, 1967, the idea of “Penny Lane” as the subject of a song began during the Rubber Soul sessions sixteen months earlier when John Lennon, looking for ideas, began jotting down assorted places that had framed his life early on. When he showed the list to his band mates, “Penny Lane,” a road situated three blocks north from Lennon’s childhood home, immediately struck a chord with his longtime chum, Paul McCartney.
As teenagers, McCartney and Lennon often met at the Penny Lane junction in the Princes Park area of Liverpool in order to catch a bus to the center of the city. “As a lad, John was habitually late, so there were many times when I waited for him at the shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Paul explained in a Rolling Stone interview in 1997.
In its final form, the tune works as a kaleidoscope of images that McCartney remembered as a child – the bank, the fire station, and the nurse who sold poppies at the shelter of the roundabout on Remembrance Day. While the sun shines brightly in the first half of the ballad, later on in the song when “the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain,” it reminds the listener that McCartney’s lyrical patchwork, like time-lapse photography, is not framed at a solitary moment – but over time. Indeed, when I first visited Liverpool in the fall of 1982, Penny Lane was mapped out exactly as Paul had described – a veritable time capsule that seemed stuck in its own personal Brigadoon.
In addition to the inspired lyrics, there are also a number of sound effects throughout the number; most memorably the fireman’s clanging hand bell in the fourth stanza and the little roadster that can be heard spinning around the communal roundabout. Lastly, the ballad’s jaunting triplet melody is impeccably supported in the final verse by David Mason’s soaring piccolo trumpet solo. (Mason, a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra legend, was paid 27 quid for his work; his horn that he used for the recording sold for a hundred times that amount in 2011.)
“When ‘Penny Lane’ was recorded in 1967,” remembered Paul McCartney, “we were no longer four blokes from Liverpool. Instead, we were arguably the most famous people in the world. And yet we longed to go back to those simpler days. It had all happened so fast.” This is most evident in the middle of the ballad when Paul states that the Nurse: “…feels that she’s in a play…she is anyway…”
Interestingly, the one part of the tune that gave McCartney fits was how to segue from one verse to another. Lennon, who always saw life through the broadest possible lens, came up with the inspired bridge refrain…“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies/ I sit – and meanwhile back…” As Paul said later on, “It was the perfect interlude that connected the separate elements of the song altogether.”
At the crossroads of recording Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ poignantly admitted in “Penny Lane” that their once normal lives had literally gone helter-skelter. In January 1967, each of them seemed to be living in a state of suspended animation.
“All I’ve Got To Do” – Recorded on the afternoon of September 11, 1963 at Abbey Road Studio Number 2, “All I Got to Do” was a song that John Lennon had composed back in the summer of 1961, which the boys had then performed live hundreds of times to audiences both at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and at scores of venues across Great Britain – from Plymouth to Leeds to Newcastle. “Because we could play the ballad in our sleep, it actually took about fifteen takes for us to get the right sound. We were really tweaking it that day in the studio,” remembered John years later.
After extensive experimentation with time and chord changes throughout the three-hour session, the band, according to commentator Ian MacDonald “…was very pleased when they heard the final product – with its downbeat atmosphere, and the hurt, halting mood of its nervy, rhythmic interplay of damped guitar chords and hi-hat strokes.”
Unlike the other two relatively dated, forgettable songs that the Beatles recorded that afternoon in London – “Little Child,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” – “All I’ve Got to Do,” is a lingering plea to an unidentified woman – most probably Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. In the end, it is a 3:00 am kind of song in which regrets can be as personal as fingerprints. “I had a Smokey Robinson fetish at the time; I idolized him – still do,” the composer admitted a few weeks before his death. Ultimately, “All I’ve Got to Do” was John Lennon’s attempt to write and record the kind of susceptible, beseeching ballad that Smokey Robinson would have written for his group, the Miracles, in the early 1960s.
Of course, most listeners had no idea about that at the time. All they knew was that John Lennon seemed to bare his brittle soul for the entire world to hear. I have always felt that “All I’ve Got to Do” could well have been included on Rubber Soul.
It was that good.
“Long, Long, Long” – Recorded between October 7 and October 9, 1968, “Long, Long, Long,” one of the most undervalued and sustaining of all Beatles’ songs, was recorded at Abbey Road Studio Number 1. In its final form, the track originally concluded Side 3 of the Beatles’ magnum opus, The White Album. After one listen, it is obvious that this haunting, affecting tune is pure George Harrison, who was then developing into such an accomplished songwriter that his forthcoming songs would actually surpass John’s and Paul’s work during the next half-decade.
A searing, poetic confession, the composition is really a draining, heartfelt reconciliation with God, which is matched by a “sighing, self-annihilating coda,” according to author Ian MacDonald. The accompanying musical ambiance emits a blanketing fog of redemptive longing throughout the piece – an impressionistic painting in musical form. Harrison, a longtime Dylan aficionado, borrows the chords from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” turns it down a notch to 2/4 time, sprinkles in a recognizable chord change from “A Hard Day’s Night,” and ends up creating an ingenious, inspiring work.
In retrospect, most Beatle fans point the ending of the number as the track’s haunting centerpiece – and it all happened purely by accident. As the group recorded the original conclusion of “Long, Long, Long,” Paul McCartney, who was playing the band’s customized Hammond organ, hit a bottom G, which caused a sudden vibration in the empty bottle of wine that had been standing carelessly on the top of the instrument’s cabinet.
Listening to the instantaneous, eerie rattling of the bottle on his headset, Paul immediately turned the sound of his organ into a ghostlike C minor; Ringo instinctively began a prolonged drum roll; George intuitively changed his chord to something mirroring “A Hard Day’s Night” in ¼ time, and John commenced emitting a plaintive vocal wail – all completely spontaneous and unrehearsed.
Of all the songs on that unparalleled double album, “Long, Long, Long” is the one that I continue to play for its ambiguity, its profundity, and its resonance. It will stick with me for the rest of my life.
“Ticket to Ride” – John Lennon, the chief composer of this classic song from the movie, Help, long claimed that “A Ticket to Ride” was “one of the earliest heavy metal records ever made.” Although they were actually trumped by the Kinks, who, a year previously had come out with Ray Davies infectious, “You Really Got Me,” the group’s recording of “Ticket to Ride,” according to musicologist Steve Turner “was the first Beatles’ track to feature an insistent, clanking riff underpinned by a heavy drum beat while using a fade-out with an altered melody.”
While most British fans at the time assumed that the ballad referred to a Brit Rail ticket to the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, John Lennon had a quirkier response, according to Don Short, a London journalist who traveled extensively with the band throughout their Beatlemania days. A play on words – one of John’s favorite literary tricks – lay in the cornerstone of “Ticket to Ride.” As Short later remembered three decades later, “John told me that the phrase referred to the girls who were working the streets of Hamburg, who had a clean bill of health when the Beatles worked there. Thus, the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. John told me that he coined the phrase, ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe those cards!”
The sexual connotation notwithstanding, what is known is that on February 15, 1965, the Beatles met at Abbey Road Studio Number 2 in order to work on the soundtrack of their latest movie project, Help! During the afternoon, they ended up recording “Ticket to Ride.” A mid-tempo rumba whose music was punched out rather than simply played, it was the first single by the band not to make it to number one, probably because the song seemed so out of sequence at the time. Instead, it would be the Beach Boys conventionally cheery, “Help Me Rhonda,” which would achieve that honor. Given “Ticket to Ride’s” pronounced amplification that lay within the context of a mid-tempo ditty, the avant-garde single directly influenced rock ‘n roll thereafter, particularly the enlarged guitar sound of the Yardbirds, whose band members included Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page.
In the end, every great work of art has two faces – one that is timely and that represents its own era, and one that is timeless and looks beyond the present to something approaching eternity. When I recently checked the number of times that my iPod had played the Beatles’ song catalog, it was “Ticket to Ride” that had the most plays. Nearly fifty-one years after it was first recorded. This vastly underrated single remains an enduring masterpiece.
“For No One,” – written by Sir Paul in the bathroom at the Swiss ski resort at Klosters in March 1966, “For No One” turned out to be one of his McCartney’s most evocative songs. A ballad based on a once passionate relationship between two lovers, written through a series of flashbacks of their lives, the vocalist realizes that the love that had once united them both is now gone.
At the time, Paul was in the final stages of a three-year relationship with Jane Asher, a ravishing, red-headed beauty who had been a renowned child actress in Britain. Asher ended up serving as the muse for such classics as “Things We Said Today,” “And I Love Her,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Here, There, Everywhere,” and Keith Richards’ “Lady Jane.” While Paul and Jane would not break up until a year later, John Lennon always claimed that “For No One” was a subliminal foreshadow of what was to come for McCartney.
As both a human being and as an artist, Paul could be incredibly coy. His decided ambivalence – an almost existential acceptance of the inevitable – contrasted exquisitely against the backdrop of John’s quirky temperament. Thus, in “For No One,” McCartney ends up focusing on a partner whose love had finally ebbed – and the effect it had on the cohort. In a clinical, detached way, Paul writes, “And in her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind the tears/Cried for no one…” The only real sentiment that frames the number comes in the last line – “A love that should have lasted years!”
As Beatle historian, Ian MacDonald, wrote, “’For No One’ is one of McCartney’s most faultless pieces, a tune constructed with the author’s customary logic that methodically moved through its classical steps like a chess player.” It is one of those rare Beatles’ songs that feel as if the songwriter and vocalist are leading the rest of the band, a virtuoso conductor who knows what moves he wants his group to make. Here, McCartney creates a lush, divergent melody here that is so interesting that I have never tired of listening to it. While John Lennon was a pure rock and roller, Paul McCartney often produced his most substantial numbers outside the margins of the genre.
By the spring of 1966, the band was firmly planted on top of a musical Everest, when they asked famed French horn player Alan Civil to play in the piece, he instantly accepted. Ultimately, Civil’s incongruous solo that serves as a borderline between each stanza and the bridge. The distinctive chords of the track were played by Paul on producer George Martin’s clavichord, brought to the Abbey Road studio from his house on Richmond Hill. The drawing room effect of “For No One” is baroque-pop at its finest. No other rock band in the world could have produced such an eclectic sound.
The entire affair was recorded on May 16, 1966, at Abbey Road Studio Number 1 and was later featured in Revolver, which was released two months later. I once played “For No One” to a student who had never heard it before. “I think I just heard my favorite song,” she said in wonder.
“One After 909,” – On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a late afternoon concert at the Woolton County Fair in which Lennon’s band, the Quarrymen, played. At the time, Lennon was sixteen; Paul a year younger. A few days later, at John’s invitation, McCartney had joined the group. The Quarrymen then began rehearsing with their new band mate by playing the usual standard fare at the time for most British rock groups – a Chuck Berry tune here, a Little Richard number there, with a smattering Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins mixed in as well.
At the first rehearsal, Paul introduced to the group a song that he had just written; a lingering ballad entitled “In Spite of all the Danger,” which the band then dutifully recorded on a friend’s tape deck. Not to be outdone, John countered Paul’s composition a week later with an original of his own, the effervescent, “One After 909.”
Based on Lonnie Donegan’s 1955 hit, “Rock Island Line,” a British skiffle rendition of the traditional American ballad first popularized by Leadbelly, “One After 909” was “the first song I ever wrote on my own,” Lennon told television host Tom Snyder in 1975. In the early years of the Beatles, it was a standard that would often be played “to rev the audience up – we played it with the same pattering style as Lonnie Donegan had on ‘Rock Island Line,’ but our guitar work in the very early days was pure Carl Perkins – all rockabilly,” Lennon told Snyder on NBC’s Tomorrow Show.
On March 5, 1963, the Beatles recorded “One After 909” at Abbey Road Studio Number One, but it “just didn’t seem right – and we argued over it after recording three or four takes of it,” Lennon admitted. The problem was that the composition sounded downright mechanical mostly because they played it in the characteristically rhythmic style of the early rockers. Even though they actually recorded two alternative takes of “One After 909” by day’s end, the band ended up shelving the number.
Fast forward to the Let It Be sessions six years later. The Beatles, who had just completed the mesmerizing but polarizing White Album four months previously, were brought back together in January, 1969, by Paul McCartney, who believed that the band needed to play in front of a live audience once again in order to remind one another of the camaraderie that had always served them in years past. The group began rehearsing some of the old songs from their Hamburg days while interspersing their playlist with hot-off-the-press originals.
During one lengthy session in Abbey Road Studio #2, John impulsively broke into “One After 909,” and the rest of the Beatles instinctively began to support him. “Even after all those years, we still could play that number in our sleep,” said Ringo in The Beatles Anthology. However, George, who had been hanging around Eric Clapton throughout much of that winter, mischievously commenced playing the lead guitar as Clapton would have – unfettered, resourceful, and bluesy. On a famed Let it Be bootleg, George can be heard saying, “Here’s how Eric would play it…”
“That’s it! That’s it!” John shouted, “We’ve got something here now!” In subsequent rehearsals, they added the keyboard work of Billy Preston, who added a jazzy trill to the entire affair.
On the afternoon of January 28, 1969, the Beatles, plus Preston, ended up performing their new version of “One After 909” on top of the Abbey Road Studios in what would become their legendary rooftop concert. Ultimately, the band was able to capture the fizz of their Cavern Club days in the early ‘60’s before they were famous and updated it to make it sound as if it had just been written. Where once the tune had sounded both confining and perfunctory, it now had an exhilarating, spontaneous feel to it.
I have never tired of hearing the obvious joie de vivre the group felt as they finally got “One After 909” right twelve years after it was first written. They literally just “let it fly” that chilly day in January almost forty-six years ago. Like an old friend, the song has never failed to boost my spirits.
“Rain,” – recorded in two separate sessions between April 14 and 16, 1966 in Abbey Road Studio Number 3, “Rain,” a John Lennon number, was supposed to be the B-side to Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer.” For many Beatles fans, however, “Rain” was the A side in every way, an energetic rocker from the old days that had an additional, neo-psychedelic quality to it.
In most of John Lennon compositions, there was a decidedly connected quality that was difficult to miss. Three years earlier, in the first verse of his “There’s A Place,” Lennon had sung, “There’s a place/Where I can go/Where I feel low/ When I feel blue/ And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone…”
Now, at the height of Beatlemania, as the group began to ponder whether to stop touring and just concentrate on their music, John Lennon in particular began to experiment both musically and socially to such a degree that in “Rain,” he actually extends the thought process beyond the borders of one’s own life. In this new world, the good and the bad happened regularly; it is up to the individual to rise above the daily circumstances of one’s existence in order to be free of such restrictions. John, who had come to serve one of the spiritual guides of his generation, ended up guaranteeing in the ballad that “…it’s just a state of mind.” After all, he promised,”…I will show you.”
As in much of their later work, there was a number of production-studio tricks integrated into “Rain.” Because they were now the most renowned band in the world, they became indifferent to booking expensive studio time. Indeed, if the Beatles wanted to record in one of the three Abbey Road studios, they would simply block-book it – and not fret about the cost. This allowed them to dabble as novice producers with the unsung George Martin graciously providing a wellspring of sagacity along the way.
As a result of such heady collaboration, “Rain” was actually recorded at a slightly faster tempo at Martin’s suggestion, John slowed the track down “slightly” by hand in order to give it a clanging feel. The band also decided to amplify Paul’s bass, which served as the lead instrument. Ringo’s superb backbeat skills were also at full throttle throughout the tune, creating a density of sound that sounds almost improvisational at a first listen. The coup de grace, of course, turned out to be Lennon’s decision to spool the opening lines of the song backward – and to use it instead as the inimitable closing of the number: “Sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fi…”
When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher formally introduced Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to us by printing out the lyrics to both “I am a Walrus” as well as the last stanza of “Rain.” When she played the ending of each in class, she asked somewhat mockingly, “So what is John really saying here?”
It is that Lennonesque blend of nonsense and perception that continue to delight and fascinate even the most casual of listeners. Ultimately, “Rain” turned out to be the Beatles’ first stab at suggesting a weighty, transcendental state of consciousness. In 1963’s “There’s a Place,” John sings in a rather dull-grey world. In 1966’s “Rain,” the entire affair is all in dazzling technicolor.
“Hey Bulldog,” –Because of the simultaneous demands of a musical soundtrack, a movie that was in post-production, and the fact that the Beatles needed a B-Side to “Lady Madonna,” the band spent ten hours on February 11, 1968, composing and recording one of their more unheralded numbers, “Hey Bulldog,” a filler that turned out to be something much more. Because they were clearly under the gun, the recording was actually a joint effort between John and Paul, based on a lick that Lennon had previously worked on but hadn’t completed entitled, “Hey Bullfrog.” The songwriters ended up consciously writing it in the style of Barrett Strong’s legendary 1960 soul twisting, “Money,” famously covered by Lennon in a kick-ass Beatles recording five years before. “We wanted to really rock out on that track as we had in Hamburg and at the Cavern Club. We wanted to blow out a tune, no holds barred,” Lennon told journalist Lester Bangs years later.
To further emphasize the truly accidental ambiance of the song, John scribbled down some lyrics while Paul furiously worked on the remaining musical chords. At the beginning of the session, when Paul played a Paul Jones’ rocker to John called “The Dog Presides,” which featured a series of dogs barking, McCartney began to howl playfully as well. Lennon liked it so much that they changed the title and then added the yelping at the end of the number. “The producers of Yellow Submarine were clamoring to us to finish the song in order to put it on that album, plus we wanted to get ‘Lady Madonna’ out as a single, so we were in a full-out sprint that day,” McCartney admitted in The Beatles Anthology.
For one line in “Hey Bullfrog,” Lennon had scribbled, “Some kind of solitude is measured out in news.” When they sang from the lyrics’ sheet as they recorded the tune, the band misread John’s chicken-scratch as “some kind of solitude is measured out in you.” Because they were working against the clock, they kept the mistake in the final version, much to the delight of Lennon, who loved the unintentional mistake.
“Paul’s bass line on ‘Hey Bullfrog’ was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well played. Harrison’s solo was sparkling, too – one of the few times that he nailed it right away. His amp was turned up really loud, and he used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream,” wrote Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ longtime engineer in a memoir written four decades after the group had disbanded.
Ultimately, they had patch-worked a tune that reminded us all that they could still rock with the best bands on the planet. “Hey Bulldog” would be a precursor to the heavy rock they would produce in both the Let it Be and Abbey Road sessions. As Mick Jagger later exclaimed, “When we first heard the song, I thought, ‘That’s a record that we would have made.’”
“Girl” – On November 11, 1965, the Beatles laid down the last track of arguably their best album, Rubber Soul, with John’s emphatic answer to Paul’s “Michele,” a brazen forerunner to the 1980s Europop style entitled simply, “Girl.” If Paul’s fantasy woman was decidedly French, upper crust, and sophistiqué, John’s dream girl was distinctly German, working class, and resembled the very real Astrid Kirchherr, a doe-like, flaxen-colored beauty from Hamburg who, during the band’s time in Hamburg, had not only helped the Beatles with their image but pushed them into such previously unexplored areas as existentialism. A photographer by trade, Kirchherr stumbled upon the Beatles one spring night in the spring of 1960 – when they were performing as the house band at the Kaiserkeller Club – and became immediately smitten by “their talent, humor, and charm.”
Within a month, Astrid began dating Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s best friend from Liverpool Art College, who had joined the group as its bassist three months previously. By necessity, the Beatles had let their hair out – they were continually in short supply of cash overseas – so Astrid decided to give them stylized cuts, which shaped their unwieldy manes into mop-like locks. Thus, the legendary Beatle hairstyle began in Hamburg in 1960 because of the artistic flair of Astrid Kirchherr!
Over the years, Beatle fans have pointed out that both Cynthia Powell and Patti Boyd, John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s first wives, eerily reassembled Astrid Kirchherr, who ended up living with Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg, until he tragically died of a blood clot to the brain a year after the Beatles returned to England for good. “All of us liked Astrid – and were in love with her as well,” admitted George Harrison three decades later.
Musically, there’s a lot to love about “Girl.”
The tune moves from a C minor verse to an A major chorus, with a whiff of an accordion provided by the irreplaceable George Martin. The ballad almost sounds like a waltz – it had an oompah quality to it that harkens back to the band’s fifteen months that they spent in Germany in the early sixties. The “tit tit tit” vocals that frame each bridge in “Girl” are decidedly sophomoric and teasing. “We were just trying to see how far we could go to pull another fast one on the censors at the time, and the song was about a girl after all” Harrison admitted in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview.
However, the girl that John sings about turns out to be intelligent, in control, and is both elusive and confounding. Because Lennon’s untamed mother, Julia, and his steadfast Aunt Mimi, his two most significant female figures growing up were exact opposites, women, in general, remained both ambiguous and imperious to him. Ending up with someone as paradoxical as Yoko Ono, then, was actually no surprise. “It was as if you put Julia and Mimi in a blender, it out came as Yoko,” Paul McCartney once famously commented.
Of course, John and Paul have a particularly inspired duet on the refrain of “Girl, “which is accompanied by a series of audible intakes. There is a story there. According to John, Astrid Kirchherr used to shampoo her hair using strawberry extract, a forerunner to the fruit-scented shampoos that would come out on the market a generation later. John so loved the aroma that whenever he saw Astrid, he would race up to her and begin impulsively smelling her blonde locks.
John later claimed that “Girl,” a haunting ode to an unknown woman, was actually his subconscious reminding him that there was a female out there who would one day match the object of desire he sang so reverently about. Incredibly, John would meet that individual, Yoko Ono, a year to the day that this ballad was recorded.
On September 22, 1980, at the Hit Factory Studios in Midtown Manhattan, a follow-up to the tune entitled “Woman,” an elegy to the “girl who had grown up” was recorded. It would be the second-to-last song that John Lennon would produce before he was shot by a crazed lunatic a decade after he and the Beatles broke up.
“The Fool on the Hill,” – Paul McCartney got the idea for “The Fool on the Hill” in March 1967, on the day the band completed recording, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” During a protracted lunch break from the Sargent Pepper sessions, Paul began humming the song with nonsense lyrics. (He had done so previously when the working title of “Yesterday” was hysterically called, “Scrambled Eggs”). As McCartney looked out onto Cavendish Avenue in the Saint John’s Wood section of London where he resided, John, who had accompanied him to his house, stated, “You better write the song out, or you will forget it.” Paul assured him that he wouldn’t.
Six months later, on September 25, 1967, the group began to record “The Fool on the Hill,” which would then be a featured number on their Magical Mystery Tour album. The tune describes a savant, whom most outsiders view as an idiot but who, in reality, is filled with enormous wisdom. At the time, Beatle fans thought that Paul was singing about the Maharishi Yogi, the Indian guru whose transcendentalism had vastly influenced the group that year. (The band then spent ten days with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India five months later, where they observed him disingenuously hitting on an impressionable Mia Farrow. Lennon then penned the uproarious “Sexy Sadie,” in response).
According to Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, however, the song had a few different genuses. “Paul, his dog, Martha, and I had an early morning walk on Primrose Hill in the winter of 1967. We watched a particularly beautiful sunrise from the very top of the hill when Paul suddenly realized that Martha was missing. We turned to try to find her when suddenly there was a middle-aged man, very respectfully dressed in a brilliant raincoat, who smiled at us. We were sure that he hadn’t been there a moment before – we were rather startled to see him – but we greeted him, and he greeted us back very warmly. A moment later, we saw Martha come bounding up the hill to rejoin us, and so we ventured back to where we had just been. To our astonishment, there was absolutely no sign of the man. Because we were on top of the hill and could easily see down on all sides, this was an impossibility. Paul and I then tried to speculate where he had disappeared to, but we couldn’t make any sense out of it. Of course, we immediately felt that something mysterious, even spiritual, had just occurred. Paul began to work on ‘The Fool on the Hill’ later that night. The next day, he began to hum the song to John and completed it later on that spring.”
The ballad that they recorded captured nearly all of the band’s most innovative musical elements that they had perfected as a studio band for the previous six years. In the final version of “The Fool on the Hill,” the Beatles incorporated eight strings, a trio of flutes, a standup bass, an acoustic guitar, a mouth harp, a set of maracas, finger cymbals, and a harpsichord.
George Martin, who constantly prodded them to explore the vast reaches of classical musical, stood in awe in the producer’s sounding room in Abbey Road Number 2 Studio as they commenced to build musically upon the song. “It was the group at their very best,” Martin commented in The Beatles Anthology, “They played off each other, experimented, added things, pared things down, and created a masterpiece together. It was Paul’s song, but they all played a big part in it. It was obvious they had now transcended rock and roll and had entered a territory that no rock band before or afterward has ever visited.”
In his voluminous book on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, writer Ian McDonald comments, “The timeless appeal of ‘The Fool on the Hill’ lies in the paradoxical air of childlike wisdom and unworldliness, an effect created by a melancholy revolving harmony in which the world turns in cycles and rest, shadowed by clouds drifting indifferently across the sky.”
For longtime fans such as me, I distinctly remember hearing “The Fool on the Hill” for the first time in mid-December,1967, and thinking, “So this is what they are now up to these days!” For all of us under their spell at the time, each single and LP release was the musical equivalent of Christmas morning.
“Think for Yourself,” – for some Fab Four fans, this number was an afterthought, a little ditty buried within the brilliance of Rubber Soul. But it turned out to be much more than that. In John Lennon’s most personal Beatles album, “Think for Yourself” was a subconscious love letter from George Harrison to John himself.
For George, the youngest and most impressionable of the Beatles, Lennon not only filled the big brother/mentor role the moment he met him at fifteen in 1957, but John turned out to be “the best teacher I ever had.” From the time he joined John’s band, the Quarrymen, in the summer of 1957 – when he was just fifteen – George Harrison absolutely idolized Lennon. For George, the most spiritual of all four musicians, Lennon was his first guiding light before he found God in the late 1960s. “John was the center of my world for more than ten years,” George wrote in his autobiography. Despite Lennon’s vast contradictions – “he unknowingly hurt me with his sharp tongue hundreds of times,” Harrison once admitted – Lennon was, after all, the individual who wrote, “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear.”
“John could be idiosyncratic, unpredictable – but his heart was almost always in the right place,” Paul McCartney told Dave March in a much-quoted Rolling Stone piece fifteen years after Lennon’s death. Not long before he died of cancer in 2002, George wrote, “In a world in which violence and misunderstanding and war were often the final result, it was John who wrote, ‘All You Need is Love.’ It’s a pretty astonishing legacy to leave to the world.”
Not surprisingly, then, George’s first stabs at songwriting consciously mirrored Lennon’s lyrics – ponderous, ironic, substantive. However, in “Think for Yourself,” recorded on November 8, 1965, the good student now yearns to sprout his own wings after latching onto John’s back for the previous decade. As in the best works of both Lennon and McCartney, Harrison’s subconscious prevails in the number: “Although your mind’s opaque/Try thinking more for your own sake/The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should.”
Musically, as far back as George’s 1963 tune, “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison often overlapped major and minor harmony with an emphatic circle progression that made his own sound distinctive from both John and Paul. He does so as well in “Think for Yourself,” a warm-up to his first authentic masterpiece, “If I Needed Someone,” which George would compose nine months later.
Fifteen years after “Think for Yourself” was first recorded, I ended up playing it over and over again in the early morning hours of December 9, 1980. Like millions and millions of lifelong Beatles’ fans, sleep was an impossibility when I learned that John Lennon had been senselessly murdered a few hours previously. Filled with pathos, I played Rubber Soul – John’s favorite album, over and over again until the dawn light sifted through my bedroom curtains. I mourned when I listened to “Girl” and wept when I played Lennon’s searing “In My Life.” But when I got to George’s “Think for Yourself,” I ended up listening intently. Through the ghostlike presence of John Lennon, George Harrison left a calling card for all of us to ponder on the day that the leader of the Beatles had perished: “Do what you want to do/And go where you’re going to/Think for yourself/’Cause I won’t be there for you…”
In March 1999, Elvis Costello received a late-night phone call from Paul McCartney. “I was sound asleep,” Costello remembered years later, “but when one of the Beatles wakes you up from a sound sleep, the adrenaline rush is immediate.”
Sir Paul then asked Costello if he would perform at an upcoming tribute concert for his wife, Linda, who had recently died. Six weeks later, Elvis met Paul at the Royal Albert Hall in London for a rehearsal for the concert. McCartney asked Costello to perform his legendary Beatles’ song, “All My Loving,” with Elvis singing John’s harmony part in the familiar refrain:
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true.
That evening, when they played the ballad at the actual concert, the audience started singing the lyrics – totally drowning out the musicians’ vocals. “I suddenly realized why the Beatles stopped recording,” Costello remembered later on. “Their songs weren’t theirs anymore. They belonged to everybody.”