The White Album

Side Two

by PopMatters Staff

18 November 2008

 

Why Don't We Do It in the Road?, I Will, Julia

15. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: October 9-10, 1968 at Abbey Road

“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” is posed lyrically as a question, one of the few Beatles songs that uses this popular rhetorical convention in a title. However, although the lyrics provide no answers, instead just repeating the question over and over again, its musical form does. The song is fundamentally a meditation on simplicity. Not simplicity for the sake of being simple, but rather, as an antithesis to the emotionally and intellectually convoluted ways we overanalyze everything. For McCartney, what we most frequently overanalyze is that which we hold most dear: our intimate and sexual relationships.

Invoking the simplest possible approaches to rock ‘n’ roll songwriting, namely two lines of repeated lyrics and the classic 12-bar, 1-4-5 chord blues progression, the song is less than two minutes long and features no solos or musical bravado, just McCartney’s progressively rowdy vocals. The song’s simplicity is a testament to its message, which challenges, and even demands us, to answer this fundamental question: Why do we complicate things so often? Whether it’s sex, politics, religion, or art, why do we complicate life with our emotional attachments? McCartney’s aggressive singing conveys his mounting frustration with this all-too-human limitation.

Interestingly, the only lyrical line beyond the title is the occasional repetition of “No one will be watching us”, suggesting that one key problem in human sexual relationships is our surrendering to social pressures. Given the proliferation of sexually explicit media in today’s society, and the pressures those assumptions and stereotypes place on men and women, McCartney’s message is as prescient as ever.

McCartney’s inspiration for the song occurred while traveling in India. Noticing two monkeys copulating in a street, he mused over the simplicity of their act when compared to the emotional warfare humans experience while making love or maintaining a relationship. Quick, uninhibited, and emotionally neutral, those horny monkeys inspired something profound in McCartney. Unlike animals, which copulate for reproductive purposes, our complex relationships to sexuality in profound ways shape our personalities. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” is Paul’s public lamentation about this paradox: Why should something that feels so good cause us so many problems? Of course, in the midst of the ‘60s sexual revolution, such a message gained instant resonance.

The song’s recording also prompted controversy among the increasingly more fractious supergroup. Since McCartney played bass and lead guitar, sang the vocals, and recorded the song without Lennon’s or Harrison’s knowledge, and since only Starr contributed anything else (drums and handclaps), Lennon in particular was angry. According to McCartney, Lennon and Harrison were busy recording two other “White Album” songs, “Glass Onion” and “Piggies”. The song took five takes; take four, a slightly tamer version of the song, is available on The Beatles Anthology 3.

Chris Justice

 

16. I Will

Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: September 16-17, 1968 at Abbey Road

Side two of the The Beatles has always been my favorite. My love for it has grown enormously since age three when I was first amused by the hog grunts in “Piggies”. The variety of styles on side two has kept me listening, as does the meaning I’ve collected about each song over the years. The stupefying number of directions those nine tracks take are like passports for nine completely different mini-excursions. No two songs are at all alike. It’s a thrilling ride.

Despite the kaleidoscopic nature of the material, there is continuity to how it’s sequenced, with one song picking up right where the last leaves off. Even after years of listening to side two, there are aural reference points that stir excitement about the sequence of the songs. Hearing the sound of birdsong on “Blackbird” signals that the merry harpsichord melody that starts off “Piggies” is only seconds away. Try to isolate any of these songs and see how difficult it is not to anticipate the song that follows it.

The dynamic between the order of songs and the aural space between them is what makes “I Will” such a startlingly beautiful moment after the cymbal crash that closes the raunchy blues bump ‘n’ grind of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”. In a way, the contrast between the unbridled lust and romantic love between these two neighboring cuts make interesting bedfellows. McCartney’s carnal cry gives way to a cool croon. His incessant demand to “do it” becomes an ode to lifelong devotion.

Or does it? “I Will” boasts one of the sweetest melodies McCartney has ever sung but it’s easy to take the lyrics for granted. I’ve always felt that, for what is ostensibly a love song, the words were a bit ambiguous in their sentiment. The third verse, the one that begins “Love you forever and forever”, gives the song its de facto wedding vow connotation, but the first two verses and the closing fourth suggest that McCartney’s woman is more a romantic vision than an actual person, or someone he’s merely glanced at rather than spoken to. “For if I ever saw you, I didn’t catch your name”, he sings in the second verse. It’s his hope that imbues the song with romance and just a tad melancholy. He will wait a “lonely lifetime” until at last he finds this elusive love. Doesn’t necessarily mean happily ever after, does it?

Still, I argue that it’s much more fun to be swept away by the charm of the song rather than get buried under by any despondency that might be interpreted. “I Will” is certainly the coziest sounding song on The Beatles. The unpretentious knock-and-shake percussive sounds, the chunky rise and dip of the bass line, the crystalline guitar strumming, and, of course, McCartney’s creamy vocal performance create 1:46 of musical ambrosia. It also sets-up the quiet hush that envelops Lennon’s “Julia”, which closes side two.

On an album that is, arguably, the most revolutionary in the Beatles’ catalog, “I Will” is a moment of tranquility. Forty years later, it offers an escape to a romantic vista where the sun never sets on the hope that love is everlasting.

Christian John Wikane

 

17. Julia

Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: October 13, 1968 at Abbey Road

Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Julia” is the last song on the first disc (or side two of the LP) of The Beatles. It is the only song recorded solely by Lennon on any Beatles record (and the final song to be recorded for The Beatles). Lennon sang and played acoustic guitar, and though attributed to Lennon-McCartney, the song is a solo Lennon composition. One of the last songs recorded on the album, “Julia” was written during the Beatles’ trip to India in 1968. In fact, while on the same trip, Donovan and Lennon spent a great deal of time playing the acoustic guitar together and it was Donovan who taught Lennon the finger-picking style he uses in the song.

An ode to Lennon’s mother, “Julia” is a song of longing and sadness. Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi, having only limited contact with his mother growing up. However, in his teenage years, they reconnected and began to spend more time together. Her sudden death (she was hit by a bus) when he was 17 was a shock, and the loss of his mother would go on to serve as inspiration for songs throughout his life. He has said of the moment when he learned of his mother’s death: “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

While ostensibly about his mother, “Julia” also references Ono in the line “oceanchild calls me”, as Yoko means oceanchild in Japanese. The song also contains a reference to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in the opening line, “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you / Julia.” The Gibran line is, “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it so that the other half may reach you.” Lennon’s altering of the line makes it more pleading and in keeping with the rest of the song.

Lennon’s gentle repetition of “Julia” throughout the song evokes a dreamlike, almost ethereal feeling in the way that it often trails off from one lyric into the next, overlapping words. The technique of using double-tracked vocals and fading one as another line begins lends an ephemeral air to the song, further emphasized in imagery that speaks to the temporary, such as “windy smile”, “floating sky”, and “sleeping sand”. Perhaps no line echoes this sentiment better than “When I cannot sing my heart / I can only speak my mind / Julia”, as it speaks to the limits of communicating his thoughts.

His hushed vocal delivery coupled with the tenderness in which he sings the words makes “Julia” one of Lennon’s most intimate songs. Lennon repeats the line “So I sing a song of love / Julia” five different times emphasizing the simple intent of the song. Regardless of the beautiful imagery and oblique references, at its heart “Julia” is Lennon’s love song to his mother and it stands as one of the great songs on The Beatles, as well as one of Lennon’s most heartbreaking and heartfelt performances.

Jessica Suarez

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