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 By this point, Lennon was a heavy user, which resulted in him becoming more emotionally withdrawn and lacking his usual bullishness.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 

230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

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