247. The Beatles – Lady Madonna (1968)

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April Fool’s Day 1968 saw the formation of Thames Valley Police due to the amalgamation of Berkshire Constabulary, Buckingham Constabulary, Oxford City Police, Oxford Constabulary and Reading Borough Police. Six days later, Scottish Formula One driver Jim Clark shocked the racing world when he was killed in an accident in Hockenheim, West Germany. Still considered one of the greatest drivers in F1, Clark was only 32 when he died.

The Beatles were at number 1 for the 15th time with the back-to-basics sound of Lady Madonna. Still smarting from the poor reception of the Magical Mystery Tour film, which went over the heads of the average television viewer on Boxing Day 1967, the Fab Four began 1968 by filming their cameo appearance at the end of the animated movie Yellow Submarine, released six months later.

Despite the relative failure of Magical Mystery Tour, they were still ruling the charts with Hello, Goodbye when Paul McCartney first unveiled Lady Madonna to some friends he had visited with girlfriend Jane Asher around Christmas time. As usual, the Beatles were ahead of the curve by perhaps sensing that psychedelia could soon be in danger of becoming predictable. Now even the Rolling Stones were ripping off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Why not replace studio trickery with a blast from the past?

Lady Madonna was McCartney returning to the boogie-woogie rock’n’roll of his youth. The piano lick was inspired (I’d say stolen) from jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues. The single, released on Parlophone in 1956, had been the first jazz song to reach the UK top 20, and was produced by Joe Meek. Playing around with his voice, McCartney also found his new song reminiscent of Fats Domino, and so he would make his voice deeper and bluesier by way of tribute. There was a further link back to 1956 here – Domino had a hit in 1956 with a version of Blue Monday (not the New Order classic), in which he sang of the plight of the working man, taking it a day at a time.

McCartney chose a similar lyrical approach, only he chose to do it from a working class, possibly single, mother’s perspective. John Lennon helped out with the lyrics, but it was mainly all McCartney, who years later said the title of the song was inspired by a photograph he saw in National Geographic of a woman breastfeeding, entitled ‘Mountain Madonna’. One lyric however, is unmistakably Lennon – ‘See how they run’ was lifted from I Am the Walrus. The Beatles were going through a phase of referencing earlier songs in newer material, something which would help inspire the ‘Paul Is Dead’ conspiracy. A clever way of using your back catalogue, or a sign of the creative well beginning to dry? Possibly a bit of both.

With little in the way of new material, The Beatles decided they needed to release a single as a stop-gap in the spring, while they attended a Trancendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Lady Madonna’s only competition at the time was Lennon’s whistful Across the Universe. This beautiful version would eventually surface with animal noises overdubbed in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s compilation No One’s Gonna Change Our World. Often Lennon would put up a fight for his own material to be the A-side, but this time he knew Lady Madonna was a stronger commercial track, even though he felt it didn’t really go anywhere, and he even relented from taking the B-side, giving George Harrison the slot for the first time with the mystic The Inner Light.

The single was completed fast, with John, Paul, George and Ringo finishing up in just two sessions on 3 and 6 February. At the first session McCartney laid down the piano, with advice from producer George Martin on how to replicate the Bad Penny Blues sound, and Starr accompanied him on snare drum, playing with brushes. Lennon and Harrison then added identical distorted guitar riffs. Then, McCartney overdubbed his bass, with Starr on full drumkit, plus McCartney recorded his vocal and Lennon and Harrison joined him on backing vocals. Studio experimentation hadn’t been completely abandoned – for the instrumental break, they decided to impersonate the Mills Brothers, who would replicate brass instruments with their voices, and simply blew into their cupped hands.

The second session was organised at short notice after the Beatles realised they needed something extra. They quickly assembled a four-piece horn section, which included famous jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophone. So hastily arranged was the session, the band neglected to tell the horn section what to play, which explains why Scott’s solo in the break sounds so pissed off.

Lady Madonna is unlikely to rank as anyone’s favourite Beatles single, but it does have vim and vigour. Starr is in fine fettle, laying down a simple but effectively thunderous beat. Lennon had a point in saying it didn’t really go anywhere, and the lyrics seem rather tossed off, and even, when McCartney sings ‘Did you think that money was heaven sent?’, rather patronising. Perhaps it wasn’t the point McCartney was trying to make, as he sounds sympathetic on the whole, but there is an element of ‘will this do?’ again about the lyrics. Whether that’s because Lennon was still too high to be bothered to contribute much and/or rein in Macca’s excesses, or it’s a sign that they were starting to care less about the band, we’ll never know.

Luckily, McCartney still had a bloody good ear for a melody, and Lady Madonna is very easy to enjoy when you hear it. But how often do you deliberately choose to listen to it? I’m not sure I ever have.

Two promos were filmed for Lady Madonna, with Tony Bramwell joining them at Abbey Road on 11 February to record them miming to the track. There was a change of plan though, and instead they were filmed while they recorded Lennon’s bluesy rocker Hey Bulldog, which ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Despite the relative lack of care given to Lady Madonna, their final single for Parlophone quickly climbed to the top within a few weeks of its release in March. However, it didn’t go to number 1 in the US, signalling that perhaps their influence was declining somewhat. Or maybe not – once again, the Beatles were at the forefront of popular culture, and other high-profile acts like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley all deciding a return to their musical roots was the way forward.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 March-9 April)

Births:

Cricketer Nasser Hussain – 28 March
Television presenter Jenny Powell – 8 April

Deaths:

Scottish race car driver Jim Clark – 7 April 

241. The Beatles – Hello, Goodbye (1967)

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As Christmas approached, the British-French Concorde supersonic aircraft was unveiled in Toulouse, France on 11 December. A day later, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones won his High Court appeal against a nine-month prison sentence for posession and use of cannabis. Jones was instead fined £1000 and put on probation for three years. 22 December saw the first transmission of BBC Radio 4 panel game Just a Minute, hosted by Nicholas Parsons. It’s still one of the most popular programmes on the station, over 51 years later.

And so we round up a rather odd year in the singles chart, as always, with the Christmas number 1. 1967 saw albums take over singles in importance, and that was in large part due to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A knock-on effect of lots of landmark albums by rising counterculture bands, including The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd and Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was that this was the least impressive year for number 1 singles in some time, with ballads back in vogue and lots of lengthy stays at the top.

The last time we heard from the Beatles they were riding high on the popularity and critical acclaim of their new album and Summer of Love anthem All You Need Is Love. But that August, the band suffered the shock of the death of their manager Brian Epstein, who seemingly committed suicide by an overdose while they attended a Transcendental Meditation course in Bangor, Wales. This set into motion the internal problems that would be a large factor in their split before the end of the decade.

Paul McCartney meant well, but with John Lennon largely lost in an acid haze at the time, he decided the best thing for his group was to get stuck into work, and his bossiness began to rankle the other three. It won’t have helped that their first post-Epstein project, Magical Mystery Tour, a film to be shown on the BBC on Boxing Day, was hit by criticism after transmission. Largely directed by McCartney, it was a psychedelic hodge-podge, with a few great moments. Luckily, they were still coming up with the goods musically. While working on Magical Mystery Tour that autumn, they also set to work on what would be their fourth and final Christmas number 1, Hello, Goodbye.

Now that the Fab Four were all influnced by LSD, they had embraced randomness in their songwriting and production. Earlier that year McCartney was visited by Epstein’s assistant Alistair Taylor. Asking the Beatle how he came up with songs, he found himself sat beside him on a harmonium. McCartney asked Taylor to say an opposite word to whatever he sang. A nice little exercise in songwriting, but was it enough for the basis of a single? Not unless there was a decent tune to go along with it, which luckily, there was. Whether McCartney already had the tune ready to go or not is unclear. Some sources claim Hello, Goodbye was in the running to be their choice for the Our World TV special, some say it didn’t come about until September.

The Beatles began recording Hello Hello (the working title) at EMI Studios on 2 October, as they were coming to the end of making Magical Mystery Tour. The line-up on take 14, which was selected as the backing, featured McCartney on piano, Lennon on Hammond organ, George Harrison on maracas and Ringo Starr on drums. Lennon wasn’t too enamoured with the track until they set to work on the coda, which they ad-libbed in the studio. Once engineer Geoff Emerick added reverb to the percussion of this section, the track came alive and they had their rousing finale.

On 19 October, two days after they attended a memorial service for Epstein, Harrison added his lead guitar, McCartney performed the vocal and Lennon joined them both on backing vocals and handclaps. Tensions likely rose over the fact that Harrison originally had a more prominent role. The version featured on Anthology 2 featured more guitar interjections and a solo. McCartney chose to wipe these and perform a scat vocal in place of the solo. McCartney was revelling in his new role as band leader, and to him, Harrison was still like a little brother. Harrison’s resentment would only increase from here on in.

The next day saw two violas added to the mix, scored by producer George Martin, based on a piano line from McCartney, who added his bass five day later. He finished the song with more bass on 2 November after a trip to Nice in France to film his Fool on the Hill segment for Magical Mystery Tour. The mono mix was completed that same day, with the stereo finished four days later.

Despite Lennon warming to Hello, Goodbye, he felt I Am the Walrus was superior and should be the Christmas single, but McCartney and Martin were adamant and Lennon got the B-side instead, causing yet further resentment and resulting in Lennon becoming even more insular.

They were all right, in their ways. I Am the Walrus was a startling artistic statement, and the superior song, but Hello, Goodbye is more commercial. I Am the Walrus, is full of stark, dark, snarling acid-drenched imagery, whereas Hello, Goodbye might be lyrically the weakest single since the group’s early days. However, the nursery-rhyme-style simplicity was entirely in tune with the times too, with so much psychedelia at the time retreating to childhood. Bowie’s first album that year may have been a flop but he was on trend with songs like There Is a Happy Land.

I may sound like I’m damning the Christmas number 1 with faint praise, but I’m a big fan. Despite the weak lyrics, it’s very very catchy indeed, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The backing vocals are sublime, and the coda is one of my favourite endings to any Beatles song. In fact, I picked this as my favourite Christmas number 1 of the 60s here, when I described the coda as ‘life-affirming pop at its best’, and I stand by that now. Alan McGee of Creation Records once described the single in Mojo magazine as ‘the greatest-ever pop song, bar none’.

Released on 24 November, Hello, Goodbye climbed to number 1 and stayed there for seven weeks, the longest stint at the top for any Beatles single. Unusually, they also found themselves holding the number 1 and number two spots for three weeks from 27 December, thanks to the Magical Mystery Tour double EP (see here). The TV broadcast may have caused confusion among many critics and fans, but there was always the music. The coda of their number 1 played out as the credits rolled on the special.

Before its release, the Beatles made three promotional films for the single. The most famous of these featured the group in the outfits they wore on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, performing in front of a multi-coloured backdrop. It’s a fascinating watch, mostly because Harrison is clearly having an absolutely awful time, and the most dour member of Beatles has never looked more pissed off. They also don their mop-top suits and wave, and Lennon and McCartney mug for the cameras, before they round off the clip getting down with sexy hula dancers.

The Beatles’ first Apple-related venture, the ill-fated Apple Boutique, opened the day after they went to number 1. The song held court for most of the first month of 1968 too. While ruling the charts, long-running horticultural series Gardeners’ World debuted on BBC One, featuring Percy Thrower. These days it’s been relegated to BBC Two but still has millions of fans.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 7 (6 December 1967-23 January 1968)

Births:

Politician James Brokenshire – 7 January
Model Heather Mills – 12 January

 

235. The Beatles – All You Need Is Love (1967)

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Halfway into the Summer of Love, and the Beatles were back on top of the world. Since Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine was number 1, the Fab Four had given up touring in August 1966 and worked on separate projects, with John Lennon starring in Richard Lester’s comedy How I Won the War (1967) and Paul McCartney scoring the 1966 comedy drama The Family Way.

Reconvening in November, they began work on Lennon’s dark, psychedelic masterpiece Strawberry Fields Forever, then McCartney’s joyous Penny Lane. It’s believed that McCartney became the last band member to try LSD that December. By this point, Lennon was a heavy user, which resulted in him becoming more emotionally withdrawn and lacking his usual bullishness. McCartney would become unofficial band leader over the next year.

These tracks were originally intended for their next album, which could have been based around the Beatles’ childhood, but after pressure from EMI, they were released as a double A-side single in February 1967. Famously, despite perhaps being their finest ever 7-inch release, not even the biggest band in the world were able to stop Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me, and for the first time since 1963, they didn’t get to number 1.

It wasn’t a big deal for the Beatles, who knew they were taking giant steps away from their cuddly moptop image of old. They were now working on their next album. The idea of a concept album based around a concert by Sgt. Pepper’s band came from McCartney. It would give them the freedom to create a wildly different type of album, and indulge themselves like never before. They knew they would not have to perform live anymore, so were able to experiment in ways previously thought impossible. Their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was finished in April, and released on 1 June.

The Beatles had changed forever, but the world still needed them, and so it changed with them too. Like Procul Harum, they captured the zeitgeist, and next they released a single that would be the unofficial anthem of the Summer of Love.

In May the band agreed to represent Great Britain on the live TV special Our World. Scheduled to be broadcast around the world on 25 June, the show would feature artists representing each country across the globe. The Beatles were working on giving tracks to the forthcoming animated movie Yellow Submarine, and at first they weren’t sure what track to choose for the show. The only instructions they were given was that it needed to contain a message that could be understood anywhere in the world. When manager Brian Epstein told them, they originally bristled at the idea. One track they considered was McCartney’s Your Mother Should Know.

Opinion is divided over whether All You Need Is Love was then written specifically for Our World, or whether it was a track Lennon had in mind for them anyway. Perhaps lyrically inspired by The Word from 1965’s Rubber Soul, and George Harrison’s Within You Without You from their new album, Lennon liked the concept of making an advertisement for love, and turning the song into an advert for the concept. Turning it into a catchy slogan fitted with the idea of Our World perfectly.

The producers of the show wanted the track to be performed entirely live, but producer George Martin insisted the group performed to a backing track. Work began on 14 June at Olympic Sound Studios, and with the Beatles now fully engrossed in the idea of embracing random elements into their methods, they decided to play instruments they weren’t used to (with the exception of Ringo Starr). Lennon was on harpsichord, McCartney on double bass and Harrison played the violin. With unusual sloppiness, they bounced this performance on to one of four available tracks. Five days later they overdubbed piano from Martin, plus banjo, guitar and vocal parts including Lennon on the chorus and the ‘Love, love love’ harmonies.

Two days before the show, they rehearsed with an orchestra, which they added to the backing track. It was only the day before the performance that they announced it would be their next single. Around this time their was a minor furore over McCartney revealing on television that he had taken LSD. Despite being the last to do so, the other three had never revealed their drug use to the media.

On the day of the broadcast, Martin  and engineer Geoff Emerick drank scotch whiskey to calm their nerves. After all, Our World was to be shown to millions upon millions of viewers. The Beatles sat nonchalantly on high stools, surrounded by a 13-piece orchestra and celebrity friends sat beneath them (how symbolic!), including members of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Small Faces and Cream, plus Marianne Faithfull, Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher. It’s a shame the broadcast was in black and white, as the studio was awash with colour. With much of the track already in the bag, Starr’s drums, McCartney’s bass and Harrison’s guitar solo were performed live, as well as the lead vocal from Lennon and backing vocals from the group and their assorted friends.

The Beatles’ music normally transcends time and place, and you rarely find yourself saying ‘I guess you had to be there’, but I feel that does apply to All You Need Is Love. Back in 1995 when I was 16 and obsessed with them, I wanted to be a hippy and this single was up there with my favourites. Now I’ve grown up and become more tired and cynical, I find it somewhat… I’m not sure if ‘hollow’ is the right word or not… it seems harsh. But for me in 2019, its their least creatively impressive single for several years.

Then again, it was intended as a celebration of the spirit of the times, and in that sense it certainly achieved what it set out to do. The orchestral elements help add flavour to proceedings, and I like the trumpet elements that interject after every line of the chorus, creating a lazy, drunken feel. The brief snatch of the French national anthem, La Marseeillaise at the start makes for a great introduction. However it’s unusual for a Beatles song to quote so many old songs. Was this to go along with the party atmosphere or a sign they were creatively lacking. I don’t know, but it does make for a rousing finale, mixing in In the Mood, Greensleeves, and even Beatles classics Yesterday and most memorably of all, She Loves You. Using the latter two works in a similar way to the usage of waxwork dummies of the Beatles in their earlier days on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Hearts Club Band. It’s as if they’re saying goodbye to their younger, fresh-faced selves. To get the most out of the song’s finale, listen to the mono mix – the fade-out is slightly longer.

Brian Epstein, who was only two months away from his early death, called All You Need Is Love the finest moment of the Beatles. It’s far from it, but its nice that he felt that way towards the group that had transformed his life. Whatever your opinion on the song, it’s a great sentiment, it was right for the time, and Lennon’s slogan stuck, and showed the way forward for his eventual solo career.

The single would find its way on to the Magical Mystery Tour US album – which, since the CD releases in 1987, is a UK album too. It also made a memorable appearance in Yellow Submarine (1968) and features on the movie’s soundtrack too.

In the news that summer: the British steel industry was nationalised on 28 July. On 3 August, the inquiry into the Aberfan disaster (see Distant Drums) blamed the National Coal Board for the deaths of 164 people in South Wales in October 1966. And on 5 August, psychedelic pop group Pink Floyd released their classic debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 July-18 August) 

Births:

Broadcaster Rageh Omaar – 19 July
Journalist Lauren Booth – 22 July 
Tennis player Monique Javier – 22 July
Cricketer Darren Bicknell – 24 July
Actor Jason Statham – 26 July

Deaths:

Actor Basil Rathbone – 21 July 

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July 

222. The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine (1966)

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The Beatles spent the majority of the spring of 1966 on one task: the masterpiece that was Revolver. From George Harrison’s sarcastic counting at the start of Taxman to the dying seconds of Tomorrow Never Knows, it was a startling leap forwards in the sonic palette of the world’s biggest group.

The month after its completion, John, Paul, George and Ringo upset the first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos by declining an invitation to breakfast while touring there. The subsequent riots left the group in considerable danger, and they were relieved to make it out in one piece.

Soon after they encountered controversy again in the US, after Lennon’s comments about Christianity (see Paperback Writer) were blown out of all proportion when fan magazine Datebook reprinted the comments. He tried to defend himself at a press conference, but found himself saying sorry anyway.

It is likely that they had already decided their US tour would be their last, anyway, but this fuss over nothing will have only helped their belief that there was little point any longer. They could barely be heard over the screaming, and the songs from their new album were going to be difficult to replicate without studio trickery.

Before the tour, however, came the release of Revolver to a stunned world. Unusually, they chose to release a double-A-side from the album on the very same day. That they chose two of the least traditionally pop-sounding tracks suggests to me it was a state of intent more than anything else. And as usual, it paid off, making Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine the most unusual number 1 single yet.

In a 1966 interview, McCartney explained that Eleanor Rigby began life as he played around on the piano. He came up with the line ‘Miss Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church’. A day later he added ‘Father McCartney’ He has always insisted there was no conscious decision to name the song after the Eleanor Rigby on the gravestone later discovered in the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool. McCartney claims the forename came from Eleanor Bron, the female lead in Help! (1965), and the surname from a shop in Bristol.

As with many classic Beatles songs, there is some debate as to who did what. Paul played what he had to the other band members, as well as Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton, at Lennon’s home. They are said to have contributed ideas, but it’s likely to be mainly a McCartney song, despite Lennon claiming several times to have a fair stake in it creatively. George Harrison is alleged to have come up with the haunting ‘Ah look at all the lonely people’ refrain, and Ringo Starr contributed ‘Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’. Shotton has stated the ending, in which Father McKenzie conducts Rigby’s funeral, came from him.

What is not in doubt is who did what in the studio. Although Yesterday had featured McCartney only with a string quartet, he insisted he wanted the ensemble for Eleanor Rigby to be much darker, and apart from the backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison for the refrain, he’s the only Beatle featured. This is the first time this had happened on a UK single release from the Fab Four. Macca had been listening to Vivaldi thanks to his girlfriend Jane Asher, and it was his idea to feature a violin.

George Martin did indeed arrange a stark performance from the string players, with the stabbing sounds in the verses making it akin to something from a horror film. He and Emerick demanded the players perform much closer to the mics than they were used to, and throughout recording they tried to move away in case they audibly messed up, causing Martin to lose his natural cool. The producer came up with the masterstroke of layering the backing vocals over Paul singing ‘All the lonely people’.

So much has been said about the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby over the years. It has a depth hitherto unseen in the pop charts. Since Ticket to Ride, the Beatles were taking steps to move away from the happy-go-lucky, direct pop material. Here, they cast it aside completely, to sing about loneliness and death, in an uncharacteristically blunt manner. This must have sounded simply astounding, the first time around.

So much is said, and for good reason, about the bold new musical direction of the Beatles when they released Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever in 1967. Yet, surely, Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine would have seemed a more incredible release? Maybe it’s because, as formidable as Eleanor Rigby is, it’s a song to appreciate rather than enjoy. The emotional detachment from the narrator to the characters perhaps rubs off on the listener a little too much in the end. It should put paid to the cliche that Lennon was always the ‘arty’ one of the duo, though.

Eleanor Rigby began in the studio on 28 and 29 April, and was finished on 6 June. The best way to hear it is the original mono version, or the reworked stereo version on 1, which corrects the error in which McCartney’s vocal is accidentally double-tracked at the start of the first verse.

The flip side, Yellow Submarine, couldn’t be more different. Over the years, as with many Beatles songs, the waters have muddied when it comes to authorship claims. In a joint 1967 interview Lennon and McCartney both took credit, with John having done the verses and Paul the chorus. Since then, McCartney has claimed the song was his and he had it in mind for Ringo Starr from day one, so he deliberately ensured his limited vocal range could take it. Originally there were going to be multi-coloured submarines, but he settled on yellow. According to Lennon in 1980, singer-songwriter and friend of the band Donovan came up with ‘Sky of blue and sea of green’.

Recording commenced on 26 May, and most of the track was finished in five takes. George Martin was ill with food poisoning, which caused the band to treat the session rather like a day at school when the class is allowed to play with board games. After much messing about, the job was done. Before finishing up, Lennon decided to add some flavour to the final verse by repeating Ringo’s lines a funny voice as if he was speaking through a megaphone. Due to an accident, the original stereo version missed out the start of Lennon’s interjections.

They returned to add sound effects on 1 June. George Martin was in his element, having spent his pre-Beatles production career making comedy records full of unusual noises for acts like the Goons, with whom the Fab Four shared a similar sense of humour. Most of the afternoon was spent recording a bizarre introduction, written by Lennon, in which Ringo said ‘And we will march to free the day to see them gathered there, from Land O’Groats to John O’Green, from Stepney to Utrecht, to see a yellow submarine, we love it!’. They did the right thing abandoning this idea – having heard it via a bootleg, it doesn’t really work.

A cupboard was then raided for sound effect items. Lennon blew bubbles into a glass, and even tried to replicate the sound of speaking underwater. Friends including roadie Mal Evans, who banged a big bass drum as everyone sang along to the final chorus in a conga line, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who clinked glasses together. According to Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head (1994), the snippet of a brass band you hear is from the 1906 recording Le Reve Passé. Apparently, hidden among the sound effects is the cash register you hear at the start of Pink Floyd’s Money.

What to make of Yellow Submarine, eh? Understandably, it divides opinion, probably more than any other Beatles song, and certainly any other single. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I can be listening to Revolver, it comes on, and I think ‘Oh nevermind, it’ll be over soon’. Like most novelty songs, it can be irritating. Why didn’t they just make it a B-side? Well, probably due to the drugs, and partly because they just could. This was 1966, the musical horizon was expanding rapidly, and the band’s imaginations were limitless at the time.

I can’t understand the fans who hate it, though. It’s a bit like those who use McCartney’s We All Stand Together as a stick to beat him with. Both tracks are bloody good children’s songs. I have a very early, hazy memory of being at school and learning about Yellow Submarine, which may have been my first exposure to the Beatles, so I can’t help but have a soft spot for this funny little song that was sung by the man who would narrate one of my favourite programmes growing up – Thomas the Tank Engine. And, all these years later, I would sing it to my eldest when it was her bath time as a baby.

Yellow Submarine was so iconic, a whole psychedelic animated feature film was released in 1968, named after it, and telling the tale of how the Beatles saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. It’s far from the best work linked to the Fab Four, and drags in places, but as always the songs are great, and there’s some astounding animation on display. I was blown away the first time I saw the film’s opening, featuring Eleanor Rigby.

Such was the group’s status at the time, this single, like all the others since From Me to You, hit number 1. However, it was the end of an era in some ways. On 29 August, the Beatles played their final gig, at San Franciso’s Candlestick Park. There would be no Christmas single in 1966, and famously, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever didn’t top the charts, ending an incredible run of 11 concurrent number 1s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 4 (18 August-14 September)

Births:

Garbage singer Shirley Manson – 26 August

217. The Beatles – Paperback Writer (1966)

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On 29 June, Barclays Bank introduced the Barclaycard, which became Britain’s first credit card in November 1967. Four days later, 31 arrests were made outside the US embassy when a protest against the Vietnam War turned violent.

At this point, the Beatles had finally got off the treadmill of one film, two albums and a million tours, when a planned third movie was cancelled. This afforded the Fab Four the chance to finally give album production more care and attention than they were used to. And to say Beatles fans felt the benefit was an understatement. The result was Revolver. John Lennon and George Harrison were now indulging in LSD, and the band entered their peak years of creativity. On April 3 they began the sessions with the album closer, the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows. It had to be the last track, as nothing can follow it.

A week later they set to work on a new single. Paul McCartney’s Paperback Writer was an experiment in writing a pop song that didn’t concern love. There certainly hadn’t been a number 1 about writing a book before. McCartney has said in later years that he was inspired by reading an article in the Daily Mail (name-checked in the song) about an aspiring author. He’d also been considering writing a song based around one chord. He didn’t quite pull it off here, but he did come close. According to Lennon in 1972, he helped with some of the lyrics. He also described it as the ‘son of Day Tripper‘, and considering the similarity of the riff, he had a point.

There’s some dispute over who played what, but either McCartney or Harrison were behind the main riff. What is beyond dispute is Macca’s bass-playing. Lennon had complained about the lack of bass on Beatles records, and wanted to know why they couldn’t make it as loud as it sounded on soul records. They’d even considered recording Revolver at Stax Records’ studio beforehand. According to the late Geoff Emerick, who had just joined the production crew, Paperback Writer became their loudest single to date. They achieved this by using a loudspeaker as a microphone, directly in front of the bass speaker. A new piece of equipment featured in the mastering process too, known as Automatic Transient Overload Control. McCartney clearly decided to go all out, and provided his best bass line to date. It was also a sign of things to come as his bass-playing became busier over the next few years. I do think his bass skills are unsung.

While much more conventional than Tomorrow Never Knows, Paperback Writer is certainly their oddest single up to this point. It may not have the trippy sounds of Revolver‘s closer, or even the pioneering backwards vocals on the B-side, Rain, but few bands did harmonies as well as the Beatles, so to hear them pushed to the foreground so much, with echo laid on top, still sounds exciting. It’s an unusually messy recording by the Beatles’ standards, with Lennon and Harrison laughing their way through ‘Frere Jacques’ in the background. It bears no relation to the theme of the song, but somehow it fits. Apparently it was made up on the spot during recording.

I love this pre-Pepper, jangly era of songs like She Said She Said and And Your Bird Can Sing, and wish there was more of it. If you can, check out the mono version over the stereo, as the extreme separation on the latter spoils the effect, and it’s also missing some of the echo.

Due to the Beatles increasing studio experimentation, live promotion of their singles was becoming increasingly difficult to pull off. Another reason for them to be considering ending touring, no doubt. As with the last few singles, they recorded promotional videos for the A and B-sides. Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed all four, with the most famous being the colour films made around Chiswick House. The Fab Four did attempt a live performance on Top of the Pops that June, but the clip, along with so many, was erased from history.

Also seemingly forgotten about is the fact that EMI used the infamous ‘butcher’ images to promote the single. Later in 1966, Capitol issued a compilation called Yesterday and Today. The original cover was a bizarre photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo in white coats, grinning away with slabs of meat and decapitated baby dolls (an outtake is featured above). It understandably didn’t go down too well, and was quickly replaced. But the image had also been used for Paperback Writer in the UK. What had they been thinking?

Well, they had hired Australian photographer Robert Whitaker for a surreal unfinished project called A Somnanbulant Adventure. McCartney stated on the Anthology television series that they had worked with him before and knew he shared their sense of humour… but he doesn’t know what Whitaker was hoping to achieve. Lennon claimed it was a protest at the Vietnam War, which seems a bold statement for the Fab Four to have made at that point. On Anthology, George Harrison typically got straight to the point and said he found it ‘gross, and stupid’. To be fair to Whitaker, he has since said he agreed with the image being banned in its unfinished state as it wasn’t getting to the point he was trying to make… that the Beatles were ‘flesh and blood’.

No, I’m still no wiser either.

Further controversy was to come for the Beatles. In March, John Lennon had been interviewed by Maureen Cleave for the Evening Standard newspaper. While discussing the decline of Christianity, he said ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now.’ Nothing was said at the time it was published, but it would come back to bite them.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July)

Deaths:

Writer Margery Allingham – 30 June 

209. The Overlanders – Michelle (1966)

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On 30 January Palitoy first launched their Action Man figures. The UK version of Hasbro’s GI Joe, created in 1964, went on to delight children (and some adults) for decades to come. The following day, Britain officially ceased all trade with Rhodesia.

That week also saw folk-pop quartet the Overlanders begin a three-week stint at the top with their version of the Beatles’ Michelle. Originally a trio, they formed in the early 1960s and consisted of Paul Arnold on piano and guitar, Laurie Mason on piano and harmonica and Peter Bartholomew on guitar, with all three providing vocals. Originally their repertoire derived mainly from American folk tunes. The Overlanders signed to Pye Records and Tony Hatch became their producer. That July they released their self-penned debut single Summer Skies and Golden Sands to little fanfare. Third single, a cover of Chad & Jeremy’s Yesterday’s Gone briefly entered the Billboard chart during the British Invasion in 1964. After that, every release was a failure, so the Overlanders decided to beef up their sound, adding Terry Widlake on bass and David Walsh on drums during 1965. As that year came to a close, the Beatles released their sixth album Rubber Soul, and among the most popular tracks was Paul McCartney’s folk-flecked Michelle.

This song originated as a joke from years earlier. McCartney had been to a party of art students, one of whom was a French bohemian who entertained the guests with songs. Paul wrote the tune to Michelle as a spoof of that night, with comedy-French-style groaning in lieu of any lyrics. While making Rubber Soul the Beatles were considering comic songs as a potential new direction, and John Lennon suggested McCartney put some proper lyrics to his party piece.

McCartney turned to Jan Vaughan, French teacher and the wife of Ivan Vaughan, his former bandmate in the Quarrymen. It was she that came up with ‘Michelle, ma belle’, and a few days later he asked her for a French translation of ‘these are words that go together well’ . McCartney then took Michelle to Lennon, who completed the song with the ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ bridge.

Such was the strength of the Lennon and McCartney catalogue, their album tracks were often released as singles by other artists, knowing that covering Beatles originals gave them a very good chance of scoring a hit. Although released as a single in some countries, the Beatles chose not to do so in the UK or US. At the same time as the Overlanders decided to give it a go, George Martin produced a version by David and Jonathan. However, apparently the Beatles gave their blessing to the Overlanders version, because their label Pye had agreed to Brian Epstein’s request not to release a single by Lennon’s estranged father Alfred. The Overlanders won the UK chart battle, although David and Jonathan hit number 1 in Canada.

Despite being one of the Beatles’ better-known album tracks, I’m not that big a fan. Apart from the catchy chorus, it’s a bit smarmy, fairly throwaway and should have remained a joke between the group. And the Overlanders version is worse, sounding smarmier. Beefing up the production makes the song worse, losing the fragility of George Harrison’s guitar solo (which was George Martin’s idea). Were this not a Beatles song, I’m not sure the Overlanders would have become the one-hit wonders they were.

Upon the release of their version, Paul Russell left the Overlanders to be replaced by Alan Warran. In 1967 Paul Arnold left the group to go solo and he was replaced by Ian Griffiths, and Terry Widlake left in 1968 to be replaced by Mike Wedgwood. These changes were a sure sign they couldn’t last, and soon the group was no more, sounding decidedly out-of-date by this point. Arnold formed the New Overlanders in the 70s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 January-16 February)

Births:

Footballer Keith Dublin – 29 January
Singer Rick Astley – 6 February
Journalist Sarah Montague – 8 February 

Deaths:

Barrister Ronald Armstrong – Jones 27 January