Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: September 18, 1968 at Abbey Road
With all the past pop culture revisionism going on, it’s easy to forget the Beatles’ basic rock ‘n’ roll roots. This was a band formulated not on puffy psychedelia, bawdy British musical hall, or pure song craftsmanship (though they excelled at them all). No, the neophyte Fab Four found instant common ground as lovers of classic American icons—Elvis and Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. Whenever they needed to recharge their creative batteries, so to speak, they returned to the raw, unbridled energy of the sounds that inspired their adolescent affections. McCartney would later admit that he “borrowed” a bit of his favorite ‘50s rave-ups to craft this simplistic sing-along. But there is much more to “Birthday” than a backward “Lucille” with a splash of “(Oh) Pretty Woman”.
“Birthday” may have been meant as a big, brassy group hug—even current gal pals Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison sang backup, a first for the all-boy band—but there is something somewhat sinister about Side Three’s opening track. It’s a call out to party, but at the same time, it suggests a quartet being forced into the position of host. One can just imagine the boys belting out the track, their animosities sidelined for the time being in order to create a new rock ‘n’ roll take on a creaky old standard. Rumor has it that the Beatles halted rehearsals on the song so that they could head back to McCartney’s and watch the Jayne Mansfield gem The Girl Can’t Help It. If one listens carefully, you can hear that film’s title tune peppered throughout “Birthday”‘s basic blues progression.
The entire effort has the feeling of preplanned anarchy. The first thing you hear before sound even settles is Starr’s resilient drumming. After a fumbling fill that feels part well practiced and part improvised, the boys run in with their Penni-Orbison riff. It’s a memorable hook, but also one that appears incomplete. Like most of The Beatles, it has a tossed-off quality that countermands the group’s previous studio fastidiousness. Soon, McCartney is doing his best rockabilly howl, with some recognizable help from the superior shouter, Mr. Lennon. With its Moon/June/Spoon lyricism further wicking away the complexity, we wind up with the world’s most famous pop artists playing jam band.
But it’s the break where things get interesting—very interesting indeed. As Starr rocks steady and someone counts down the time, we learn of the imminent celebration. Voices mix and harmonies merge, once again bringing in the influences of the past. As an effects-laden guitar joins a treated piano as quasi harpsichord (more honky tonk, actually), McCartney’s voice bellows for the listener to “take a ch…ch…ch…chance” and “dance”. In between each stanza, a wistful, melancholic responsorial from the gala of the track’s title resembles the last breathy sigh of a dying ghost. Its inherent eeriness countermands the song’s sock hop sentiments. The freaky fade out of the treated keyboards further amplifies the sense of dread.
As a result, when “Birthday” comes bellowing out of your speakers (or in these post-modern technological times, your iPod), it more or less fails to remind one of a Bo Diddley date with Fats Domino and the rest of the roots revivalists. Instead, what the Beatles managed here was indicative of their entire career. Instead of copying other musicians, recreating their approach with student-like seriousness, they took the signature styles and made them wholly their own. This is Elvis as envisioned by his fans, except in this case, said devotees were geniuses of sound and structure. If they were sad that their take on the syrupy annual sentiment didn’t instantly replace the jerryrigged “Good Morning to You”, originally composed in 1893, they never showed it. Instead, “Birthday” remains the anthem for every proto-punk’s impending maturation. It signaled something very similar for its creators as well.
19. Yer Blues
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: August 13-14 and 20, 1968 at Abbey Road
For all that chatter about The Beatles predicting the band members’ solo work, only two of its Lennon tracks would be of a piece with his Plastic Ono Band, arguably the defining post-Beatles disc. One is the muted, tender “Julia”; the other, the searing, spooky “Yer Blues”.
“Yer Blues” is the only officially released Lennon-McCartney original to be christened a blues, and one of few to strictly follow a 12-bar blues structure. Furthermore, while many Beatles songs grapple with death in some form (“Run for Your Life”, “Eleanor Rigby”), “Yer Blues” is the band’s only track to explicitly discuss suicide.
And why? Lennon never expresses “the reason why”, other than to contemptuously grunt, “Girl, you know the reason why.” But given that this is a man who, three tracks later, will feminize the Maharishi in order to eviscerate him, who earlier in the album bitterly blamed some woman for his insomnia, whose entire oeuvre (and biography) is peppered with problematic gender interactions, he might as well be saying, “Girl, you are the reason why.” Following in the grand blues tradition of women doing wrong and leaving a man in pain often simply by leaving him, Lennon seethes in heartbreak. But his introspection (call it his utter self-absorption) turns the misdeed inward, and the song focuses on his reactions rather than whatever wrong she supposedly committed. This is not a revenge story, or an attack on an unfaithful woman. This is instead an attack on the man who, through some or many unspecified flaws, doomed himself to solitude. Typical of Lennon, the girl is a scapegoat but secondary, even irrelevant. Lennon is who matters here. Like many of his most personal compositions, “Yer Blues” bridges the roots of rock ‘n’ roll with the incipient singer-songwriter solipsism.
“Yer Blues” is, paradoxically, both ephemeral (like life) and eternal (like death). Its cyclical four minutes feel as though they could be drawn out and repeated ad infinitum; this is a song that some overindulgent rock band could turn into a 20-minute opus, full of false endings and (hopefully) unexpected left turns. The track begins with a count-off in which two is the first audible number, and Lennon’s vocal starts with an authoritative “Yes, I’m lonely”, as if answering a question never posed. What follows is an in-the-moment snapshot of a shattered psyche, with few of the preceding details filled in. What brought him to this extreme state? Beyond some parental info (“My mother was of the sky / My father was of the earth”), little insight is offered or needed. The immediate feeling is more important, the spontaneous laments of a man who feels like a decomposing corpse, right down to the animals pecking away at his carcass.
With such a sparse lyrical base, “Yer Blues”‘s chief impact is musical. It is a fairly abrasive Beatles song, laced with feedback and white noise; after the psychedelia of 1967, it is refreshingly raw and tough, perhaps influenced by the electrified blues of bands like Cream, and sonically not that far removed from the blues-based hard rock that Led Zeppelin would perfect a year later. The song actually sounds like the death its singer anticipates. Lennon’s vocal is throat-shreddingly intense—when he asserts “I am of the universe, AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S WORTH”, the Nietzschean despair in his scream suggests it’s worth nothing. Being of the universe is scant consolation, nor is his lifeblood—Lennon identifies with Dylan’s notoriously square Mr. Jones, the purported antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll cool, and even music fails to provide solace. In fact, once he confesses that he “feel[s] so suicidal, EVEN HATE MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL”, the slow, foreboding 12/8 blues speeds up into a juke joint shuffle, from which Lennon quickly retreats—leaving a frantic, blood-rushing jam that conjures an injurious adrenaline rush, capped with a weeping guitar solo that sounds like bleeding.
He never fully returns; when the song reverts back to the initial tempo, Lennon’s vocal is off-mic, a buried echo, the final whimpers of a man about to transcend this earthly plane. He is fading, and the music is about to fade with him, leaving an ultimately unsettling message: a man will disappear, and eventually so shall his creations. A message that, 40 years later, “Yer Blues” has successfully refuted.