The White Album: Side Three

20. Mother Nature’s Son

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: August 9 and 20, 1968 at Abbey Road

By 1968, folk rock had become a well-established notion. Bob Dylan embodied it a number of different ways while hybrids of pop and old-world Anglo-Saxon swirled about the British scene in the form of Fairport Convention and the Pentangle. The Beatles’ folk rock tracks on the “White Album” certainly reflected all of this while looking directly toward the upcoming singer-songwriter movement.

To put the songs into that latter context, though, feels a bit like saying Keats’ odes foretold the dime novel craze. This is not only because they distinguished themselves through inventive guitar playing, crafty chord sequences, and melody to spare, but they were also such singular performances. “Blackbird” and “Julia”, for example, seem like pieces simple enough for the everyman to sing and play, but you’ll never hear them at a campfire — they’re just too complex as compositions and self-contained as recordings.

“Mother Nature’s Son” is another one of these and it’s a standout. McCartney wrote the song during the group’s summer with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose lecturing about nature had inspired both McCartney and Lennon to write one song each. Lennon’s “Child of Nature” eventually morphed into “Jealous Guy”, which appeared on his 1971 LP, Imagine (hear the early demos on bootlegs like The Alternate White Album). McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son”, of course, flourished into the fully realized pantheist hymn that appeared on side three of The Beatles. It’s an utterly simple, almost inconceivably beautiful track. Acoustic guitars trickle playfully like the mountain streams he sings about. English horns echo throughout ancient hills, while solitary drums rumble over distant, grassy peaks.

“Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies,” sings McCartney, who’s at once as sweet and melancholy as he’d ever sound. These contradictory qualities lend the track so much of its unique atmosphere. Beatles histories like Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, of course, have told us that intra-moptop tension characterized this album’s late summer/early fall studio dates. Here’s engineer Ken Scott about “Mother Nature’s Son”: “Paul was downstairs going through the arrangement with George and the brass players. Everything was great, everyone was in great spirits. It felt really good. Suddenly, halfway through, John and Ringo walked in and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. An instant change. It was like that for ten minutes and then as soon as they left it felt great again. It was very bizarre.”

We can speculate endlessly on the reasons for the hard feelings, but we needn’t ever doubt their musical benefits. (Lennon and Starr were apparently working that day on Lennon’s nerve-rattling “Yer Blues”, which happens to precede “Mother Nature’s Son” on The Beatles and perpetuates forever the McCartney-as-softie conception.)

While singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, among others, could certainly rival the Beatles in the sophisticated folk-rock department, none of that ilk could match their ability to sound so effortless and simple. And John Denver, nowhere near their level on any count, turned “Mother Nature’s Son” into a live staple during the ’70s by bypassing the song’s more complex and melancholy layers altogether. Such is the pastoral elegance of the Beatles’ original recording of “Mother Nature’s Son” that nothing calling itself folk, folk-rock, or any other such thing, has ever epitomized the oft-recurring “nature’s child” motif to the same degree before or since.

Kim Simpson

21. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: June 26-27 and July 1 and 23, 1968 at Abbey Road

The recording of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” can be seen as the moment when Lennon-McCartney turned into Lennon-Ono. To shamelessly mix metaphors, if the Walrus was Paul, then the Monkey was Yoko.

In June of 1968, Lennon’s affair with Ono was quickly overwhelming every aspect of his life, including his marriage with Cynthia Lennon. The other marriage in Lennon’s life, his songwriting collaboration with McCartney, was also in shambles. The days of sitting in the same room and finishing each other’s songs were over. Ono quite literally moved into Beatle territory by becoming the first outsider ever allowed in the studio.

It’s important to note the double meaning of the titular “monkey”. 1968 was the year Lennon and Ono descended into heroin abuse, at once isolating Lennon from his band mates and solidifying his bond with Ono. This monkey on the back showed up in the lyrics (“the higher you fly, the deeper you go”). As Bob Spitz states in his landmark biography, The Beatles, the new level of drug use “manifested itself in John’s adversity and craziness, but the underlying influence had also crept insidiously into the songs”.

“Adversity” and “craziness” are two words that could easily sum up the manic freakout that is “Me and My Monkey”. One can hear a sense of urgency in Lennon’s pleas to “come on” and “take it easy”. Lyrically, it’s a defensive crouch that begs for empathy. The only hitch, of course, was Lennon wouldn’t return the favor for any of his band mates. He had imploded his life from many to Ono and was angry that anyone would question his motives. As Lennon himself later said, “Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love.”

But for all the turmoil, the song never loses its joyful sense of abandonment. A spaz-out of the highest order, “Me and My Monkey” jettisons all limits in a maze of ringing bells, racing blues, and shouted come-ons. In other words, it’s Chuck Berry on crack.

Furthermore, though it might not have the typical makings of one, “Me and My Monkey” feels like a punk song. It is aggressive and urgent with a lack of self-consciousness. Sounds like a description for the Ramones. Just another genre in which Lennon’s influence can be heard.

As if it needed more help, “Me and My Monkey” also stands out for its track placement. Sequenced between McCartney’s pastoral “Mother Nature’s Son” and the lilting Lennon ditty that follows, “Sexy Sadie”, “Me and My Monkey” juts out like the markings of a polygraph during an egregious lie. It is a true WTF? moment. “Love Me Do” this ain’t.

In his selfishness and defiance, Lennon created a track for those who complain the Beatles don’t rock enough. It’s useful to view “Me and My Monkey” as a companion piece with McCartney’s “Helter Skelter”. Where Lennon goes weird, McCartney goes foreboding, in effect producing a funhouse mirror image of finger-blister freakouts.

(Further Listening: The blues-boogie version Fats Domino(!) recorded in 1970. It’s a great insight into Lennon’s songwriting prowess. Even in the most frenetic of songs, he provided a song structure to batten down the hatch.)

Tim Slowikowski