Friday, November 6, 2009
For the soundtrack to an ebullient, modishly Technicolor pop musical, Help! opens with a sequence of songs that are remarkably ambivalent, if not downright moody. The title song is famous for the way it juxtaposes its bright guitars and Wall of Sound harmonies with John Lennon's autobiographical, claustrophobic lyrics: "When I was younger, so much younger than today...." But really, the whole first side plays with this tension between pop bliss and emotional uncertainty, as either the music or the lyrics constantly call into question the state of mind of 1965's biggest band in the world.
The recent re-release of the Beatles catalog, all spiffed up and digitally remastered, has caused me to dive back in these last two weeks, listening to the new CD versions of records that defined by high school years to a huge degree (I heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand" my freshman year, and immediately fell in love). It's been an intensely pleasurable experience, and the remasters sound great (I've heard five so far-- Help!, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, A Hard Day's Night and Revolver, and only Night has been a disappointment-- fantastic songs, but a spottier sound with the stereo remastering). Listening to the albums is also a reminder that, for all their later breakthroughs and studio experimentation, the Beatles may never have been better-- smarter, tighter, more in sync with one another-- than in 1965, when Help! and Rubber Soul offered the world state-of-the-art rock and folk-pop, respectively, and when the band explored with wit and subtlety the themes of romance, individualism and community that they'd feel the need to make more explicit in the years that followed.
"Help!" is followed by "The Night Before," Paul McCartney's response to his partner's initial musical call: McCartney sets aside the Byrdsy guitar pop of the first song for a bluesy, organ-driven number whose R&B phrasing acts as a reminder of the mod culture that surrounded the Beatles in mid-sixties London. It also acts an ongoing rebuke to McCartney's confident vocals: he's cool and confident Paul, the clipped phrasing barely penning in the energy of his high-pitched growls, as if Little Richard was roped to a cool jazz trio; but this cool confidence is slowly undermined by the lyric, as the foreplay of the opening lines ("We said our goodbyes, the night before/Love was in your eyes, the night before") stands revealed as the desperate pitch of a ditched partner, rather than a smug expression of triumph ("Now today I find, you have changed your mind/Treat me like you did the night before"). It's a song that's enhanced by the clearer sonic spaces the remastering creates: you can better hear George and John's deadpan harmonies (here functioning less as the ballast, a la "Help!" and more like an ironic, "Ha ha!" Liverpudlian chorus), and the organ that grooves throughout. It feels like you're in the darkened studio with them, and can sing the smoke from Ringo's cigarette:
"The Night Before" is also a song that uses McCartney's wide vocal range to great effect, as the higher end used in the verses expresses an increasing anxiety that borders on screaming, while the lower end anchors the bridges, where the narrator tries to regain his cool and stay calm. If the protagonist of "Help!" sees love as his final salvation ("I do appreciate your bein' round..."), the cad of "The Night Before" is finding that love may not, in fact, be all you need.
"Help!" and "The Night Before" function as a very cool, one-two opening punch, displaying two fantastic songwriters, at the height of their powers, having an ironic conversation about the nature of love. McCartney's jazzy number is answered by John's shift from the electric to the acoustic: the gorgeously rueful "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," whose folky guitars and unobtrusive flute section frame what might be Lennon's best-ever vocal. In his definitive book, The Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn notes Lennon's hatred of his singing voice, his constant request to producer George Martin to "do something with it!" That vocal anxiety might be the single best example of Lennon's crushing insecurities: "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" shows off a voice any other pop singer would kill for-- the screaming rock edge that Lennon brought to songs like "Twist and Shout" is forced into a softer, lower range here, and the effect increases the richness of Lennon's timbre. Even as the lyric expresses regret, the expressiveness of Lennon's voice brings out the bitterness and irony ("Gather 'round, all you clowns/Let me hear you say...") of the song's protagonist-- this is the character of "The Night Before" in the weeks after, sitting with mates at the pub and trying to rationalize his loss.
The lovely insistence of "Away"'s guitars (their chord repetitions and prominence in the mix are the steady counterpoint to the singer's mood swings) and the jaunty interplay of flutes and drums at the end cast the song into an emotionally ambiguous space in the same manner that twining of grooving organ and short guitar licks did for "The Night Before." That ambiguity is resolved by "I Need You," George Harrison's first self-written song on a Beatles record, whose opening chords blend the organ from song two with the acoustic guitars from song three as a kind of sonic detente that matches the the tune's relatively more conciliatory lyric: as a later pop song would ask, why can't we friends? George is not, in 1965, anywhere near as sophisticated a songwriter as Lennon and McCartney, but the simpler musical and lyrical palette is just what is needed here-- after the tossing and turning of the first three tracks, George's open pleading ("Please remember how I feel about you/I could never really live without you/So come on back to me, I'm lonely can't you see?/I need you") clears the emotional and sonic air (a testament to the sequencing savvy of George Martin and the band).
Paul's "Another Girl" is the first attempt to stake a more confident ground, the boy on the rebound. We hear Paul's voice ("For I have got--") singing acapella for the first five notes, so excited to be hitting the town that he's not even gonna wait for the band. When the band kicks in with nice rockabilly groove, its chunky rhythms create a sound like a train engine carrying our hero towards his new relationship. It's an engine powered by bravado ("I don't wanna say that I've been/Unhappy with you/But as from today, well I've got/Somebody that's new"), but the clipped ends of the lyrics hint at that bravado's falseness-- he's almost begging the question ("She's sweeter than all the girls, and/I've met quite a few..."), throwing the new girl in the old girl's face ("And so I'm telling you, this time you'd better stop") in a manner that suggests he wouldn't mind if the old girl still liked him a bit. But the train has left the station, and the rockabilly insistence of Ringo's drums is carrying him into the future whether he likes it or not.
The next song is a more successful attempt at Confidence Regained, the sonic and emotional completion of the previous song's idea just as "The Night Before" was to "Help!," and "I Need You" was for "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." But count on John Lennon to make things complex: the bravado finally comes through in a tale of emotional teasing.
"You're Going To Lose That Girl" is the official title of the next song, but Lennon's raw, nasally vocal growls it as "You're Gonna Lose That Girl"-- what's grammar worth in a bullying put-down, anyway? And when I say growl, I mean growl-- you can almost see the lower lip jutting out in a sneer, the animal saliva barely missing the microphone. The first four tracks were first-person narratives about loss, need and desire; suddenly, it feels like the camera has flipped POV, and we're seeing these sensitive sad sacks from the exterior position of a man on the make ("If you don't take her out tonight/She's going to change her mind/And I will take her out tonight/And I will treat her kind").
It might be gross, except the whole thing is too damn danceable; the Beatles never forgot the importance of a great groove (it's what makes "Lady Madonna"'s tale of prostitution so poppy) and how those grooves could be deployed ironically-- are we really going to get mad at a guy when his increasing dares and come-ons are linked to the joyful poly-rhythms of Ringo's brushes and tom-toms? Even the backing chorus ends up as Mr. Bully's gang-- there's a real joy to the way that they toss in asides like "Watch what you do, YEAH!" You can hear the rough draft of the kinds of ironic line alternations--"'Cause I will treat her right/And then you'll be the lonely one/(You're not the only one...)"-- that they'd use to great effect on later songs like "Getting Better" and "Hello Goodbye." The whole thing concludes in a blending of voice, guitar and drums that musically resolves on a high note that's quite different than the previous five songs.
It can't last, of course-- this is a musical prism where every song has to bounce off another. "Ticket To Ride" brings what would have been, in a pre-CD era, "side one" to an appropriately ambivalent close. Musically and lyrically, it draws together all the threads of the previous six tracks, and it's a song where every member of the band makes crucial contributions. It's primarily Lennon's lyric, and his lead vocal slides across words ("I thinnk I'm goonna be sa-a-a-d/I think it's toodaaaay, YEAH!") as easily as the Beatles will ski down the mountainsides of Switzerland when this song plays in the Help! movie; Paul's propulsive bass-lines shadow Ringo's drums, as Starr smacks out a rhythm that McCartney himself devised; and John and George's intertwined guitars create maps of sound, John's rhythm guitar slashing beneath the melody like lines in a Jackson Pollock painting while George's lead creates intricate pointillist patterns on top of and in-between his partner's broader strokes. It's the most sonically blissful song on the whole record, the single best display of how finely the Beatles had tuned their model of vocally harmonious guitar rock only three years into their recording career. And it's the album's best example of how they were functioning as one perfect pop mind in this period, everyone knowing exactly how to balance out the others.
And so, of course, all this musical wizardry and togetherness works towards a revelation of loneliness and loss-- the second half of the verse I quoted above ends, "The girl that's drivin' me mad/Is goin' away...." In seven songs, we've moved from the idea of love as a counterweight to self-involvement ("Help me get my feet back on the ground") to love as a rejection and cold dismissal ("She's got a ticket to ride/And she don't care"). The support the singer wanted has become suffocation for his partner ("She said that livin' with me/Was bringin' her down/That she would never be free/When I was around"), and not even his rationalizations ("I don't know why she's ridin' so high/She oughta think twice, she oughta do right by me...") can save him this time: where he saw floating away as a trap in song one, his lover understands it as freedom in song seven.
But here's the thing about songs: as Stephen Sondheim once said in an interview, you can be as lyrically clever as you want, but you always have to remember that someone has to sing the damn thing. And while Lennon's lyric is a brilliant study of loss and bitterness, its real "meaning" lies less in the words than in how they're sung. Or more precisely, how they're played, in all senses of the word. Lennon opens with an intentionally draggy timbre, like a man who's just woken up to find his lover packing her things-- words feel slurred, pulled upon, as if Lennon is using them for the first time. One could easily imagine the kind of quiet, rueful vocal we got in "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," except the band-- now fully electric once more-- won't let him fall into that kind of solipsism.
The repeated guitar figure that opens the song and recurs throughout starts slowly-- expressing a kind of tentativeness-- but quickly picks up speed and brightness, pushed along by that wonderfully off-kilter drum roll, and Lennon's vocal is soon pushed in the same way. The second the chorus kicks in, Paul is there to help his friend stand upright; it's literally vocal support, of course, but it's a sort of emotional support, as well. When John reaches the bridge and goes into the "she oughta think right" rationalization I mentioned above, Paul doubles Lennon's vocal line and fills it in with high-pitched harmonies that lift the song into a different emotional register, like a pal supporting his friend (even if that friend is completely wrong, because sometimes that's what friends do). It's where lyric meets performance, and tension is resolved in the joy of four men playing together. Two years later, Ringo sang of how he "got by with a little help from his friends," but "Ticket To Ride" already mapped out that space in a very rich way: if love isn't all you need, maybe the perfect pop single is.
Joy, sadness, loneliness, desperation, come-ons, break-ups, and getting up the next day: after the rich sonic and emotional territory the first side maps out (it's a song suite without ever having to pretentiously call itself that), the second side has a lot to live up to, and so the Beatles do precisely the right thing: they let Ringo deflate everyone's expectations. His loose, funny and utterly goofy cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" might lack the utopian surrealism of "Yellow Submarine" or the sing-along fun of "With A Little Help From My Friends," but it's my favorite Ringo vocal ever; what McCartney once referred to as Ringo's three-note range is well-suited to the country & western setting-- it's closer to yodeling than anything else, and its limitations embody the lyric's tale of a fool who stumbles through love and life. If Owens' tale of a constant loser at love seems of a piece with the previous songs, the galloping rhythms of the band (and their clear joy at supporting their drummer) feel more like a rebuke: "Lighten up, people," they seem to be saying (ironically, this song, which matches the mood of the movie Help! more than any of the album's other tracks, never appears in the film). The walking bass line and cymbal-driven drum part keep anything from getting too sad or sticky, and George gets just the right twang into the guitar.
That twang gives way to reverb in "It's Only Love," a sonic transmogrification that transitions us back to LennonLand. "I get high when I see you go by," he sings in delicate voice, a lovely line that's not really matched by anything else in the song. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its moments-- if the lyric seems like a pale sequel to "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" (the guy who's trying for reconciliation instead of sitting wounded in the coffeehouse), the jangly guitar and finger cymbals keep things grooving and nicely unsettled; it's a nice sonic match to the narrator's inability to decide what he finally wants. "It's only love and that is all/Why should I feel the way I do?/It's only love, and that is all/but it's so hard loving you." Again, John's timbre elevates the song, giving a more ironic edge-- the narrator's back and forth eventually feels less serious and more comical (at one point, John rolls the "B" on the word "bright," and can't quite recover in time to hide his chuckle). His protagonist never does figure out what to do: the decision is made for him by the format of the 60s pop single, as his 1:56 eventually runs out, and his final "it's so hard loving you" ends up as "loving yooooouuu" like he's being sucked into Ed Wood's theramin.
"I Like You Too Much" acts as George's response song, as his protagonist explicates his co-dependent relationship: "Though you've gone away this morning/You'll be back again tonight/Telling me there'll be no next time/If I don't just don't treat you right/You'll never leave me and you know it's true/'cause you like me too much and I like you." The lyric gets increasingly silly as the lover delineates the nature of his love, but it's really notable for the jauntiness of Paul's electric piano, whose dancing, almost laughing phrasing both predicts and mocks the lyric's strange tale of love. McCartney's electric piano is one of the few highlight of "Tell Me What You See," a Lennon-McCartney co-vocal that feels less like a song and more like a sketch-- the lyrics are throwaway, almost non-existent, but the performance is pleasantly jazzy, particularly at the 1:49 mark, when Paul's piano bumps against Ringo's big bass drum.
The best moment on side two is the next one: "I've Just Seen A Face" is so casual in its country-folk performance that it's easy to overlook just how much work goes into appearing so effortless. The lyrics forgo the emotional complexities and contradictions of so many of Help!'s other songs-- this is the most open and purely romantic song on the record-- but their emotional simplicity is belied by the complexity of their craftsmanship. There are four verses, and each opens with two lines that rhyme with one another ("I've just seen a face/I can't forget the time or place"), followed by two lines where the rhyme is internal ("That we just met, she's just the girl for me/And I want all the world to see we've met"), the "met" at the end of the line cutting it off with a hard "t" sound, and capturing the way that the first blush of love can cause us to run on and oscillate between elegance and inarticulateness. When we get to the chorus, it's only two lines-- the title is built into the opening verse, after all-- but it, too, uses stresses to great effect: the shorter first line of the chorus lands against the longer second line as an embodiment of what the lines, together, are getting at: "Falling, yes I am falling/And she keeps calling me back again." On "again," like a rubber ball bouncing against a hard surface, the narrator is back on his feet and speeding towards verse two, barely pausing for breath. Amidst these wide-eyed declarations of love at first sight, he'll occassionally toss in an "Mmm-mmm-mmm" or a "la di da"-- the genius of McCartney is that he knows these asides have no meaning in the real world, but a great deal of meaning in the world of the pop song, whose expressivity often relies on its inarticulation.
Then, in my favorite moment on the entire album, McCartney's double-tracked vocal catches itself-- at the 1:51 mark, the normal "Falling, yes I am falling" is replaced with a variation, "Whoa, Falling, yes, I am falling..." It might seem like a small moment-- the addition of a single word-- but when you hear him sing it, as if his body's just been pulled back up by a parachute, or he's figured out how to fly just before hitting the ground, well...I'm hard-pressed to think of cooler, funnier, sweeter moments on a Beatles record. Asides can mean as much as anything in the world the album is creating. But having caught himself-- having, only for a second, stopped his forward progression-- the narrator can no longer continue his declarations, and the song ends.
"I've Just Seen A Face" is practically McCartney solo (one of the reasons it translates so well to his current live performances), and so is the next song, "Scrambled Eggs." The famous story about "Scrambled Eggs" is that it came to McCartney in a dream, fully formed. Luckily, he remembered it when he woke up, jotted it down, and started singing to people-- he was so wigged out by the way it came to him that he was certain he was just recycling someone else's song. But no one recognized it, and no one claimed it, so "Scrambled Eggs" went into the studio. When he played it for George Martin, it was thought that an electrified Beatles recording might kill the song's delicacy, so a string quartet was proposed, to accompany a solo Paul on acoustic guitar. This was becoming something quite formal, adult and lovely, so Paul's initial lyric-- "Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs..." would probably have to be changed. And thus, "Yesterday" was born.
"Yesterday" would become the most covered song in the Beatles catalog, and Lennon-- who had nothing to do with it-- would later tell wry stories of bands in restaurants playing the tune when he walked in. It would establish McCartney's reputation as a balladeer even more than his earlier cover of "'Till There Was You," and that reputation would make him an easy target for some of less open-minded, more obnoxiously rockist critics that would bloom at magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy (as if afraid that liking a ballad might castrate them, they'd snidely refer to these kinds of songs as "Paulie" numbers) (it almost makes you wonder if McCartney should have kept the original, more ribald dummy lyrics). It's certainly true that "Yesterday" broadened the Beatles' audience, catching the ear of many older people who'd dismissed their more electric work.
But such is the reputation of the song-- good and bad-- that its qualities as a piece of music have almost been obscured. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely number, fully deserving of its success. Martin's strings on later songs like "She's Leaving Home" could feel a little treacly, and McCartney's sentimental streak wasn't always as balanced by his keen sense of irony once the Beatles broke up; but here, the quartet is unobtrusive, subtle, their vibrato shadowing McCartney's own, rather than overwhelming it. There's a nervous tension to the way the strings of the guitar are plucked at the beginning, expressing both the protagonist's confusion and, perhaps, McCartney's own sense of tentatively stepping into a new musical world. The digital remastering is revelatory-- you could always hear the quartet, of course, but now you can really hear it, and when they enter about 30 seconds in, it feels less like Lawrence Welk than the Kronos Quartet-- pretty but strange, supportive and slightly seasick at the same time. In other words, perfectly in tune with both McCartney's vocal (which has a harder, more expressive accent on it than one might expect for a ballad) and the lyric's own searching and disjunction. When Paul sings, at the 58-second mark, "Now I long, for yesterday...", the subtle double-tracking of his voice makes the lyric less about nostalgia than escaping into a floating dream-space. We are, in other words, back where we started at the beginning of the album-- the protagonist may be singing in a more "adult" musical place than on "Help!," but it's no less difficult or emotionally conflicted.
As with the end of side one, the only answer is to return to the group, and joy of play. It might seem odd to end such a personal, expressive masterwork with another cover, but it's a masterstroke: the quivering strings of "Yesterday" suddenly give way to smirking guitar licks of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," quickly followed by John's playful "woo!" and yelping "Oww!" This is party pop-- simple, straightforward, and catchy as hell. The guitar repeats a simple seven-note figure with only slight variation; the straight-ahead drumming intersects in an almost mechanical way with the workman-like bass, and only John's fevered vocal offers any real sense of progression, as the protagonist works up a sweat while working through his obsession. The song comes to a halting conclusion, as if the band were a wind-up toy and had just completed its turn.
And none of this is meant as an insult or critique: The Beatles are smart enough to realize that after the emotional roller-coaster of the previous thirteen songs (and their varied musical textures), sometimes all its audience wants is a bit of release. The Larry Williams original has a broader, denser R&B production, with piano, organ and horns. It's very cool-- and sounds a lot like Little Richard jamming with Ray Charles--but there's something charming about the more exhausted version the Beatles play here, because it might not be just their audience that wants that sense of release. Chronologically, it might make more sense to place "Lizzy," a style of songwriting that feels very different from everything else on the record, earlier on the disc-- it's easy to imagine an album like Meet The Beatles! opening with it. But jamming it at the end-- just before the audience might flip the record back over or hit play again on the CD-- is a reminder of the night of bliss that comes before the morning of regret that "Help!" represents, a reminder that melancholy and bliss can live side by side. And that, in the face of shifting emotions and shifting musical landscapes, sometimes the coolest, smartest thing the world's biggest band can do is make us twist and shout.