Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Charming F*ck-Ups

If you thought based on the title of this post that it was going to be about me, the joke's on you because I'm not charming!


No, it's gonna be about the Beatles, of course.

You1 can't call the Beatles "fuck-ups" in general2 because they rarely fucked up, releasing great song after great song, and great album after great album. But within those songs and albums, you can hear little screw-3ups, mostly stemming from the state of recording in those days, when fixing a minor, barely noticeable error meant essentially having to re-record the whole song or at least a whole instrumental or vocal track.

For a  record from a pop group whose shelf-life was being measured in months, as the Beatles' was when they first started out4, this was, quite simply, considered not to be worth the time or expense.

And so you find these little gems, these charming fuck-ups, in Beatles songs right from the very beginning of their recording career. Here are some of my favorites:

"Please Please Me":

John was notorious for not being able to remember lyrics correctly, even his own. Verses one and three of "Please Please Me" are the same, or are supposed to be: "Last night I said these words to my girl/ I know you never even try girl" ... except, in verse three, you can clearly hear John sing, at the 1:27 mark, "Why do I never even ..."etc. You can then hear him almost laugh during the first "Come on!"

Despite the "fuck-up", this was the Beatles' first #1 in Britain (it was only their second single) and, while it appears to be pretty tame, lyrically, it actually embodies certain implications that are possibly a little more risque than you1 might think at first blush: What, exactly, is it that "my girl" is not doing quite right and is thereby failing to please her man?

Possibly she just has braces on her teeth and is being a bit tentative.

John's inspiration for this song was some Bing Crosby song that contained the line "Please listen to my pleas", which John, ever the punner and word-player, found interesting; and so he set about writing a song containing the word "please" twice, each time with a different meaning, though; and he ended up putting the two "pleases" right next to each other, which is kinda nice.

A few months later, John would write "It Won't Be Long", which contained the lyrics: "It won't be long yeah (yeah)/ Till I belong to you" — the exact same lyrical hook he used in "PPM", this time with possibly a bit more sophistication.

But John was an Equal Opportunity Fuck-Up, not limiting his mistakes to his own songs or the lead vocals: He was just as capable of messing up on the background vocals of a Paul song, as he does here:

"What You're Doing":

During the verses, John basically screams the first word of each line along with Paul, for emphasis; in verse two, the second line, at 1:08, is "YOU! Got me cryin' girl", but you can clearly hear John scream "I'm!" instead of "YOU!"

I am just unreasonably fond of this little-known jewel of a song. I love the opening tympani and Ringo's drumming in it in general and I like George's lead guitar and the shouted harmony vocals are, to me, just brilliant. The song starts out with that emphatic tympani beat and I just think it's clever the way the vocals pick that up BOOM-bom-bom beat during the verses.

George Martin did an excellent mash-up of this song, "Drive My Car" and "The Word" for the Love album — three great Beatles songs in the key of D. (Paul's "Taxman" lead guitar is in there, too — another marvelous key-of-D song, this time by George.)

This next one technically isn't a fuck-up, because the fuck-up, while accidental, was noticed but deliberately left in:

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da":

The lyrics to the third verse are: 

Happy ever after in the market place
Desmond lets the children lend a hand

Molly stay at home and does her pretty face 
And in the evening she still sings it with the band

These lyrics were supposed to be repeated in the final verse, but Paul, apparently without realizing it, fucked up and sang:

Happy ever after in the market place
Molly lets the children lend a hand

Desmond stay at home and does his pretty face 
And in the evening she's a singer with the band

Paul noticed this afterward — how could he not? — but liked it so he left it that way5, and that's why there is this tranny reference in "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and that's also why it is, I assume, RBR's favorite Beatles song6.

I had intended to write about at least three more fuck-ups, but this post is already kinda long7, do that's a fuck-up on my part.

But if you're looking for more, here's one you can try to find on your own: See if you can hear the "O, fucking hell!" in "Hey Jude".
1 Or, as One SteveQ would say, "One".

The Other SteveQ would say, "I", just to be perverse.

2 Because I say so, is why. Also because ... well, finish reading the sentence, above.

3 Or "fuck-".

4 When Beatlemania first took hold (in 1963 in Britain; and 1964 in the US), the Beatles were constantly being asked how long they thought they would last. That they wouldn't last was an a priori assumption that was basically universally accepted. And in retrospect it's kinda amazing that the Beatles themselves evidently did not find this question insulting or condescending4a and would seriously consider and answer it, Paul, for example, saying that he and John could see themselves continuing their careers as kinda Tin Pan Alley hit-song writers or in some other marginal way, maybe writing songs for musical comedies. But by about 1965, this assumption that the Beatles were destined for a very short career indeed was pretty much dead, the a posteriori fact of their (so far) three-year-long career having finally driven a stake through the heart of the a priori assumption that they wouldn't last 18 months. In fact, this you-won't-last assumption was openly mocked in the Beatles' 1965 film, Help! when the Beatles go to Scotland Yard for help in trying to stop the cult that is attempting to kill Ringo4b:
Superintendent: So this is the famous ring?
Ringo: I'm in fear of me life, you know!
Superintendent: And these are the famous Beatles?
John: So this is the famous Scotland Yard, eh?
Superintendent: And how long do you think you'll last?
John: Can't say fairer than that. The Great Train Robbery, eh? How's that going?
4a Although who knows? Maybe they did or very quickly began to or, not wanting to rock the boat when they were just getting popular, decided to hide their resentment at this assumption that they were a flash-in-the-pan. John is on record, much later, as having resented this. But then John is on record, passim, as having resented pert-near everything during the Beatles' reign, so it's hard to know what he actually thought at the time; because he had this habit of injecting his current attitude into the past (see footnote 5, below, for John's resentment of how George Martin recorded "SFF", which, at the time, John was mightily pleased with).

4b Long story. Just watch the movie if you haven't already, because it's pretty funny still; and if you liked The Monkees TV show, you'll like this movie, because the TV show was an admitted direct rip-off of the movie.

5 Actually, I never quite bought the "accident" explanation for this fuck-up because it just seems too deliberate. (By 1968, when the Beatles recorded "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" for the White Album, they were spending literally months at a time in the studio recording songs and albums, so they certainly could have "fixed" this song, if they had wanted.) In any case, it's probably just as well, if it were an accident, that Paul decided to leave it be because John just detested "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and was very resentful that so much time was lavished on it in the studio; and he probably would have throttled Paul if Paul'd made them record it yet again because there were numerous completed takes of this song that Paul signed off on; but then he'd come into the studio next day and say, "You know, I want to re-do 'Ob-La-Di' because I thought of a better arrangement ..." And John was so fed up with this that at one point he came into the studio either drunk or stoned out of his mind and said, "I have the perfect opening for this fucking song" and played those crashing piano chords that open the song. And they ended up using them on the finished track (obviously).

It's said that Paul could be a bit of a "perfectionist" in the studio, especially when it came to his own songs, and that this drove the other Beatles nuts. But Paul was often a bit more than a perfectionist, that epithet being a bit too polite to describe how unreasonable Paul could sometimes be. For example, when the Beatles had recorded "Penny Lane", Paul, having heard a unique-sounding instrument called a piccolo trumpet on a TV program, decided he had to have it for the instrumental break of "PL". But that's not the unreasonable part, because the Beatles, at this point (late 1966), could easily afford the time and money it took to get David Mason, the very instrumentalist Paul had heard, into the studio. Paul was controlling enough that he hummed the notes he wanted played to George Martin, who transcribed them for trumpet; but even that is not the unreasonable part.

This is the unreasonable part:

Mason came in and nailed his solo on the first take; it's just flawless playing. But Paul, in the control room, gets on the intercom and sez: "That was great. Can we have another take then?"

George Martin had to gently take Paul aside and explain to him the miraculous nature of what they had just been witness to and that there just was no way to improve on the performance they had just heard and that to even imply that there might be was an insult to Mason and his flawless performance.

John, ever resentful of the time lavished on Paul's songs, would frequently claim, after the Beatles broke up, that his songs were given short shrift, which is utter nonsense, because there is no single song in the Beatles oeuvre that had more takes and iterations and variations than John's own "Strawberry Fields Forever". And the final product is a marvel of technical wizardry, because it is two separate takes melded together. John liked the first part of one take and the second part of another. Nothing particularly earth-shattering about splicing something like that together. Except, as George Martin pointed out to John at the time, the two takes were in different keys and at different tempos. John said, "You'll figured something out" and left it in Martin's hands.

Martin, to his credit, came up with the idea of using a vari-speed tape player to speed the one take up a bit and slow the other down a bit until their tempos nearly matched and the one take, in the key of B, met the other, in the key of A, somewhere around Bb. (You can hear the splice on the word "going" here, at roughly the 1:00 mark.)

Later, after the Beatles broke up, John would complain in interviews that George Martin totally fucked up "SFF" and that he'd like to re-record it to "do it right".

John could be a bit of an asshole at times.

6 Followed closely by "Get Back" because:

Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman
But she was another man.

Paul was really into this tranny phase in late '68, early '69.

7 That's what she said!1!


  1. Unrelated comments: Check out

    The Discovery Channel's going to have a series on brewmasters.

    Related comment: the audio's out on my PC; I'll have to listen to "What You're Doing" later.

  2. With apologies to 'The Who' these guys are the greatest band of all time. Nice information!

  3. I love Obla Di Obla Da. Definitely one of my faves. Definitely. (small tribute to Rain Man since it's raining cats and dogs in ATL today)