In belated recognition of the recent release of Beatles CD remasters, I thought I should briefly discuss my favorite Beatles song.
“Dear Prudence” is the second track on the group’s 1968 double album The Beatles (more commonly referred to as “The White Album”). It was one of several songs the band members wrote during their early 1968 trip to study meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. John Lennon wrote the song about attempts to get one of his fellow meditation students, actress Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, to come out of her room after suffering a panic attack. During recording sessions for “The White Album”, Paul McCartney played bass, piano, and drums on the song, the latter the result of the temporary resignation of drummer Ringo Starr from the group.
The most distinctive aspect of “Dear Prudence” is its ethereal, almost foreboding quality, something which is quite uncommon in the Beatles’ discography. The song’s sound is partially due to the fact that the group recorded it on eight-track equipment. However, the arrangement of much of the song is intentionally sparse; after the upbeat power-chord Beach Boys homage of album opener “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Dear Prudence” wafts onto the record like a gentle breeze. At first “Dear Prudence” seems nothing more than low-key ballad wrapped in sadness; its strength lies in how it builds up to a fantastic finish that banishes the negative atmosphere just like the sun breaking through on a cloudy day.
The song begins with a lone John Lennon performing an arpeggio figure on an acoustic guitar. However, as the guitar fades in, two notes progressively ring out louder than the others until they dominate the mix, ringing hauntingly throughout the rest of the song. It’s a simple yet effective hook, similar to those found in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. More than anything else, it’s this hook that draws me into the song. In contrast, Lennon’s lyrics for the song are straightforward and really nothing special, he’s simply asking Prudence to come out and “greet the brand new day”. Ultimately they are incidental to the singer’s performance. Lennon always had one of the best-sounding voices in rock, and on “Dear Prudence” his double-tracked vocals deftly conjure a sense of loneliness that adds a sorrowful edge to his beckoning.
If the song was just Lennon’s voice and guitar, it would be a still be a fine recording, albeit one with little sonic depth (much like the beautiful closer “Julia” on “The White Album”‘s first disc). Ah, but The Beatles were master arrangers, and the group demonstrates its greatness with how Paul McCartney and lead guitarist George Harrison gradually add to the song. McCartney’s bass is initially spacious, emphasizing the ringing guitar hook with lonely thuds that resonate in the mix. McCartney’s drumming is also very tasteful; if Starr’s exit became permanent I don’t think the band would’ve been in too bad a shape. At the start of the second verse, McCartney switches to the sort of chromatically descending marching rhythm the band favored during its most psychedelic phase. While the chromatic bassline heightens the sense of unease, it’s also another strong, simple hook that drives the song.
With the end of the second verse, a cymbal splash announces the entrance of George Harrison, who tosses in a short electric guitar solo before Lennon bridges back to the verse with the surreal, twisting manner he sings the “Look around”. With each little piece added, the song returns to that perfect two-note hook, sometimes letting everything else drop so that that guitar part can be highlighted. The climax of the song is right after the third chorus, where McCartney shows off his best drum fills while Harrison plays an ascending guitar line. As the band’s performance reaches higher and higher on the music staff, the Fab Four (minus one) finally banishes the song’s downer mood and revels in the unfolding joy of the music as Lennon sings “The sun is out / The sky is blue / It’s beautiful / And so are you”. It’s the sort of ending I live for.
Even after dissecting the song in-depth, I have to say there really is no special reason I like it so much. Yes, “The White Album” was the second album I ever got on CD (this was sometime around 1997 or 1998). Still, “Dear Prudence” isn’t tied to a specific moment of my life, and I actually don’t listen to it as much as I do certain other Beatles songs (hello, “Paperback Writer”). It just comes together perfectly for me in a way no other Beatles song does. Whenever I hear the song, I have to stop and think to myself, “This is my favorite Beatles song”. And really, that’s all there is to it.
On a final note, I feel I should mention the Siouxsie & the Banshees cover of the song. Released in 1983, it became the goth pioneers’ highest charting hit in its home country, reaching number three on the UK Singles Chart. Quite frankly, this version doesn’t impress me at all. There’s no sense of dynamics, and in the hands of the Banshees the song just becomes one aimless, hazy mess. Even the presence of Robert Smith of The Cure on guitar doesn’t increase the cover’s appeal to me, and I’m usually very receptive to that sort of thing. But hey, if you’re curious, go ahead and check it out. Just keep in mind The Beatles did it way better the first time around.