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John Lennon, George Harrison, George Martin, and me in Studio Two at EMI Studios.
We begin our alphabetical journey, with drastic unoriginality, with the letter A. There are so many Beatles songs that begin with A, but there are few better than the classic tune “All My Loving.” It was primarily a Paul McCartney composition and certainly one of Paul’s major early works. Recorded in July 1963, the song was written a couple of months earlier, while the Beatles were on tour with one of their American heroes, the great Roy Orbison. Even though it was never released as an actual single, “All My Loving” was certainly a big hit with pop music fans across the world and remains a favourite of mine as well. A great song, a great singer, and some imaginative harmonies on the third verse that Paul sang with himself.
In fact, this early song contains multiple examples of the originality, creativity, and brilliance of each individual Beatle and his contribution to the arrangement. In the verse, Paul plays a walking bass part that moves effortlessly through the chord changes. Ringo rides the hi-hat in his splashy yet precise style, creating a joyfully unique shuffle feel; he also plays a syncopated snare part which switches to straight quarter notes in the bridge. John’s giant contribution was a perfect electric rhythm guitar part composed of driving triplets (at a snappy tempo) throughout the verses and then syncopated backbeats in the bridge—not an easy part to play at all, let alone with the rocking precision that John delivers. And finally we have George’s wonderful Chet Atkins–flavoured, Country Gentlemen–style guitar solo.
Paul’s lead vocal sounds effortless, as does the high harmony he overdubbed on the last verse. I believe that when they sang this song live, Paul would go up to the harmony for the last verse, and George would take over the melody—the harmony goes up to a high G-sharp which Paul could (and still can!) hit easily, and then he saves a perfect falsetto high C-sharp for the licks at the end.
Another significant A song comes from the other end of the Beatles’ time together as a band, and that is “Across the Universe,” composed mainly by John Lennon, and about which a lot has been written. Some have speculated about whether it was competing with “Lady Madonna” to be released as a single in 1968. There are various different versions of the song, and I honestly am not sure how many. I’m also not sure which version is the best. I confess that I am no expert on that stuff. The original version was recorded for a benefit album for the World Wildlife Fund, and it was already a fine song. It seems John was not completely happy with the way it came out, whether in this version or any of the subsequent variations. Phil Spector had a go at the song as well at one point, but I am told that John did not like that, either. My guess is that John was so happy with the lyrics when they first made themselves known to him (for that is how he felt, apparently) that he never quite believed that he had found a musical bed for them of equal quality and brilliance—despite many different overdubs, an orchestra, a choir, exotic instruments, and so on.
Given the poetic nature of the lyrics themselves, that makes sense to me. I especially love how the lyrics actually (and perhaps transcendentally) describe the process of their own creation: “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup / They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.”
This remarkable song also gave rise to a movie called Across the Universe. It was written by some brilliantly witty and creative writers who are friends of mine, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, who wrote many great British TV comedies and some excellent screenplays. They wrote The Commitments movie, and for TV they wrote the classic Porridge, which is brilliantly funny, if you ever have the chance to see it, and Lovejoy, and so on. Across the Universe was directed by the astonishing Julie Taymor, who is famous for being the director of The Lion King, the unbelievably successful stage musical in New York using Elton John’s music. She also did so much extraordinarily creative work in the theatre before that. But we are talking about Beatles music, and Across the Universe, the movie, had some creative cover versions of Beatles songs in it. The most radical was performed by someone I very much admire, the brilliant actor and comedian Eddie Izzard. If you don’t know his work, look him up and watch everything. He’s a genius. Check out Darth Vader in the canteen on the Death Star—it’s amazing. But in Across the Universe, Eddie Izzard takes on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and turns it into a surreal and eccentric recitation over an arrangement that, to my mind, owes more to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band than to the Beatles. Remarkable.
There were also quite a few excellent Beatles covers done for I Am Sam, a Sean Penn movie which used only Beatles songs, each sung by a different artist. One of those, strikingly enough, was “Across the Universe,” sung on this occasion by Rufus Wainwright. He is a singer I really admire. He comes from an amazing family. His father, Loudon Wainwright III, is a fantastic songwriter; his mother was Kate McGarrigle of the wonderful McGarrigle sisters; and his sister is Martha Wainwright, so it’s no wonder he’s a very good singer himself. What I like about his version of “Across the Universe” is that it may actually bring out the sublime beauty of the melody almost more effectively than do the various Beatles recordings, some of which get quite heavy-handed in the complexity of the arrangement. And Rufus has a gorgeous tenor voice. So listen to John Lennon’s version for his creative genius, to Eddie Izzard’s for the eccentricity of the song itself, and to Rufus Wainwright’s for its elegant and movingly definitive beauty.
Now it’s Ringo’s turn to join us under the heading of the letter A. The song that comes immediately to mind is an obvious choice but a great one. Two things Ringo is really good at: playing the drums and acting naturally. And we have him doing both in “Act Naturally,” a song he found for himself, listening to a Buck Owens record. Ringo is a country music fan, and the “Bakersfield sound” and style of Buck Owens suited him perfectly. Written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison, the undemanding vocal range of the melody and the self-deprecating humour of the lyric might as well have been designed for Ringo—and once his performance was released on record it became an in-concert favourite as well.
We move on to George Harrison, still under the letter A. Another obvious choice, and such a great record, is “All Things Must Pass,” the title track from George’s excellent first solo album. With an astonishing cast of star musicians, an elegant string arrangement, and a heartfelt George vocal, this could be one of the finest and wisest solo Beatles records ever made. Though George may have originally hoped that the song would end up on a Beatles album, I believe it was best served by coming out the way it did and establishing the genius of George as a solo composer, producer (working in tandem with the unpredictable Phil Spector), and artist.
That album, All Things Must Pass, was made after the sessions for the final album the Beatles recorded, Abbey Road. And indeed, some of those songs might have made it onto Abbey Road and inexplicably did not, but their omission helped create the masterpiece that the album All Things Must Pass became.
Abbey Road itself is still a work of extraordinary genius from all the Beatles collectively, so we are going to go backwards in time from All Things Must Pass to the Abbey Road sessions that preceded it. They were, by all accounts, quite difficult sessions. The recording did not go easily, but it came out so well that one would never know it.
Abbey Road is a very big subject in its own right under the letter A. It is of course a street in the north of London in the area known as St. John’s Wood. The nearest tube station is indeed St. John’s Wood Station—originally on the Bakerloo Line but now on the Jubilee Line. (Probably more information than you need, but you never know; you might be heading there one day.) That’s the tube you take if you want to get by public transport to Abbey Road Studios. It was originally called EMI Recording Studios. The house it is in was built in 1829, a beautiful Georgian town house. In 1931 it was turned into EMI Studios and opened by the brilliant composer Sir Edward Elgar.
You may think you do not know or are not sure who Edward Elgar is. But you do actually know because you are undoubtedly familiar with one of his biggest hits. I guarantee it. His big hit, which is still played today—talk about a golden oldie—is “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.” I am told it is played at the majority of graduation ceremonies in the United States, whether college or high school. Apparently, this very tune is the most frequent accompaniment to that glorious moment. That was Edward Elgar’s monster hit, still a hit today—and it has words, too. The words are all about a “Land of Hope and Glory,” a reference (it goes without saying) to Great Britain. What I did not know until I looked it up is that Elgar didn’t originally have words to it at all. King Edward VII told Elgar to put words to it. So because Edward was the king, Elgar did exactly what he was told to do. And it became another hit which everyone sings. Drunken and patriotic aging Englishmen sing it at any opportunity—though with a considerable degree of irony. Speaking on behalf of that specific community, we love it. It is also sung every year at the conclusion of the famous Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The BBC actually tried to exclude it (along with “Rule Britannia”) at one point, in deference to “European viewers,” but I am happy to say that public outrage won the day and it was reinstated.
EMI Studios was initially used for classical recording. But in 1958 something happened. The very first rock and roll record ever produced at EMI Studios was recorded in Studio Two. And that record (“Move It”) was by a man called Cliff Richard, a major influence on all of us in British rock and roll. John Lennon said, “Before Cliff and the Shadows, there had been nothing worth listening to in British music.” It was a huge hit in England. We all fell in love with Cliff, and he is still a big star today.
Though Cliff Richard’s backup band is famously known as the Shadows, in 1958 they were called the Drifters. It eventually dawned on everyone that there was a very successful band in America already called the Drifters, and Cliff’s backup band became the Shadows. But “Move It,” their first record and a British song written by Ian Samwell, was actually credited to Cliff Richard and the Drifters and released on August 29, 1958—and that date can be said to mark the beginning of the history of British rock and roll, our ongoing tribute to a great American art form.
In that same studio, Studio Two at EMI Studios, the Beatles made nearly all of their records for the next several years, including the album they decided to call Abbey Road, which they recorded and released in 1969. They named the album after the street the studio was in, of course, not after the studio itself. But then in 1970, somebody at EMI had the bright idea of changing the studio name to Abbey Road Studios, and that is what they did. It remains one of the most significant and important studios in London. Well worth a visit. They have just built a whole new Dolby Atmos mixing room. Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, who is also a brilliant record producer, has a room there. It’s a really cool studio, and I use it whenever I am in London and have the opportunity to do so. Even to someone like me who has used Studio Two very often over many decades, there is still something magical about being in the “Beatles’ studio,” and to newcomers it must be intense. Running up and down those stairs between the live room and the control room (the only studio I have ever used with such an idiosyncrasy) remains both exciting and nostalgic.
While we’re still on the subject of Abbey Road the studio, I’d like to turn our attention to one of my favourite tracks off Abbey Road the album, George Harrison’s “Something.” Now, as many of you know, James Taylor had a song called “Something in the Way She Moves” which he and I recorded for the album we made for Apple Records. A little while after that, George Harrison wrote a song that contained the same lyrical phrase, “something in the way she moves,” and somebody said, “Aha! Maybe he borrowed that from James,” in response to which James explained that actually, in his song “Something in the Way She Moves,” he had borrowed the lyric “I feel fine,” from the Beatles song of that title, and he used it twice because he loved the song. He sang, “She’s been with me now quite a long, long time, and I feel fine.” So lots of lyric borrowing goes on in every direction all the time, and it has given rise to so many great songs, and no one is complaining about it.
Copyright © 2019 by Peter Asher