Monday, 26 January 2015

10:41 Wild Honey Pie

Wild Honey Pie is without a doubt the best Beatles song ever recorded.

I'm kidding of course.

What can I say from a songwriting point of view about this 0:53 long, almost instrumental, oddity?

It's a true Beatles solo recording featuring McCartney on vocals, guitar and drums. It was birthed in Rishikesh and cut at the tail end of the Mother Nature's Son session. Self-referencing his own (very different) song Honey Pie he named it 'Wild Honey Pie' to avoid the obvious confusion. Paul called it “a multitracking experiment” and “just a fragment of an instrumental which we were not sure about, but Pattie Harrison liked it very much, so we decided to leave it on the album”.

Wild Honey Pie Isn't Really A Song But It's Still A Crucial Part Of The Beatles Catalogue

As with Revolution 9 any attempt to analysing the 'songwriting' would be pointless as it isn't really a song but pieces like this do serve a purpose in the life and creative cycles of a songwriter.

In order to stay fresh and creative songwriters (like any artist) need to 'play' (as opposed to 'work'). They need time to mess about, to blow off steam, without being under any pressure.

For example:

  • Doing low budget, low time things
  • Performing cameos for other artist
  • Paying tribute to your heroes
  • Working completely outside your normal genre
  • Collaborating with artists outside of your comfort zone
  • Creating small scale projects
  • Working solo if you normally work with a band or vice versa
  • Switching instruments

Here's that list again with some examples

  • Low budget, low time (Josh Whedon filming Much Ado About Nothing in his house)
  • Cameos (Eddie Van Halen on Beat It, Pete Jackson in Hot Fuzz)
  • Paying tribute (Dream Theatre cover albums/gig, Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie album)
  • Outside your genre (Paul McCartney's Working Classical album)
  • Collaborating outside your comfort zone (Paul Simon Graceland, Metallica/Lou Reed)
  • Small scale projects (Stephen King writing a novella after a novel)
  • Solo if you're in a band (first Foo Fighters album) or vice versa (Travelling Wilburys)
  • Switch instruments (Sting, Jack White, Dave Grohl again)

Recognising the need for 'playing' can be a big help in preventing burnout and create fuel for you to grow as an artist. Not recognising it can create an ever-decreasing loop, regurgitating the same ideas.

The downside of pushing out in new areas though - whether it's a different genre, working method, instrument or scale - is that your early efforts are probably going to be unfit for public consumption. So if you accept the need to 'play', how much stuff do you keep under lock and key?

Most of it.

But do release some. Get second opinions. And keep it in proportion.

The longer your 'Wild Honey Pie' goes on for, the less effective it becomes. The more of a 'production' it is, the more studio time you lavish on it, the more band members you press-gang into playing it, the more it starts to work against creativity (see Ob-La-Di and Maxwell for further details).

But imaging how poorer the Beatles legacy would be if someone had cleaned up the Beatles catalogue. Nothing too 'out there' (Revolution 9, Wild Honey Pie, Blue Jay Way) or childish (All Together Now, Yellow Submarine) or cheesy (Do You Want To Know A Secret). We left with a stronger set but a more one dimensional band. Knowing McCartney was capable of Wild Honey Pie makes Yesterday seem more remarkable. Hearing Revolution 9 makes A Day In The Life more miraculous.

So go and play.

Monday, 19 January 2015

10:40 Back In The USSR (pt 3) Blues Clues

Not only is Back In The USSR blues-influenced, it's a short step away from being a 12 (give or take a few) bar blues. Instead of the original chords


try singing the verse and chorus over a 12 bar pattern


The melody and harmony reinforce the blues style ambiguity. The blusified melody (Ticket 22) created from the minor pentatonic scale (A C D E almost exclusively) implies A dorian when heard over the D major chord. The A major root chord (not A minor) clearly heard in the piano part suggests A mixolydian. The E7 chord (Ticket 65) in the intro and bridge pulls us towards A major. This 'modal' feel (“we're definitely in A but we just can't settle on a scale”) is what the blues is all about.

The melody itself is odd. The verse starts on an unstable 4th (just like Day Tripper) and rocks back and forth between the 4th and the equally unstable b3rd. That's D and C natural repeated over an A major chord which contains C#.

The Chorus itself is the least catchy part of the track, overly syncopated and rushed, perhaps to accent the play on words (is it “I'm backing the USSR”?) but using the same turnaround on the chorus (0:30) and bridge (1:08) and dropping out to accent the key lyric on the last line of the chorus are nice touches (see Tickets 41 and 30).

Next up: Wild Honey Pie

Monday, 12 January 2015

10:39 Back In The USSR (pt 2) Stuttering

One of my favourite bits is the 'scratched record' effect at the end of chorus 2 (0:59). It's similar Revolution 1's time change (at 3:24) created by Geoff Emerick's editing mistake. Here McCartney deliberately uses a 'Lennon Extension' (Ticket 52) probably attempting another 'joke' - “Back in the US? No! -Back in the USSR”. Geddit?

There are numerous ways of analysing it musically.

It could be 4/4 3/4 3/4 4/4. Or perhaps the time signature remains in 4/4 (with a bar of 2/4 to set it right) with McCartney singing a hemiola cross-rhythm over the top (Ticket 29). If so it's cool to note the hemiola is in our heads – no one is actually playing a 4/4 beat.

More than just a cool bit, this tiny idea has a big effect on the whole song structure.

Chorus 1 – is fresh because we hear it for the first time
Chorus 2 – is a surprise. We expect to hear the same chorus but instead we get the hemiola
Chorus 3 – is uncertain because we don't know which variation we're going to get (we get chorus 1 again)
Chorus 4 – is a partial surprise because hearing chorus 1,2,1 we are half expecting 2 again. (we get 1 again)

Just a few seconds freshen up the whole chorus section, because it subtly undermines the predictability of the chorus.

Try that in your songs. Throw one tiny spanner into chorus just to keep people on their toes. (Ticket 72).

Monday, 5 January 2015

10:38 Back In The USSR (pt 1) Weird Al McCartney

Back In The USSR was the reason Ringo quit the Beatles, the only track to feature all three remaining members on bass AND drums and a sort of multilayered parody, channeling both on Chuck Berry and the band that plagiarised him – the Beach Boys.

Parody In Arrangement

Taking his initial inspiration from the UK government ad campaign “I'm Backing Britain” McCartney developed a fictional 1st person narrative (Ticket 70) - a Russian singing about how cool life is in an oppressive communist regime set to a rip-roaring US-style track. An uncharacteristically edgy, but unique angle (see Ticket 42).

I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody. And 'Back in the USA' was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there

It's tongue in cheek...'Georgia's always on my mind', there's all sorts of little jokes in it...We added Beach Boys style harmonies

The Beach Boys elements (which Mike Love claims credit for) manifest in the bridge and the all-American vocab like “gee”. There is a nod to “Beach Boys style harmonies” but it's caricature rather than careful pastiche – a Mike Love approved bass part, a single high wordless descant and the main melody. No dense Wilson richness, though the Beatles were certainly capable of that).

Parody In Lyrical Structure

Flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.
Didn't get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
I'm back in the USSR

Verse one is a really strong opening and sets the scene wonderfully with the positive feelings towards Russia being developed in the second verse (Gee it's good to be back home). But it's instructive to look at how McCartney developed the song in direct relation to the template Back In The USA. Because a great parody is not merely 'one song to the tune of another' poking fun at something, but in the hands of a true artist (like Weird Al) uses the lyrical shape and development to inform the lampoon (Ticket 71).

Back In The USA

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home
From over the seas to the U.S.A.

Back In The USSR

Flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.
Didn't get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
I'm back in the USSR

Notice how Paul copies the first verse by opening with the plane landing

We touched ground on an international runway/Flew in from Miami Beach

expressing his emotional state

I feel so good today/Man, I had a dreadful flight

and naming his home in the last line.

From over the seas to the U.S.A./I'm back in the USSR.

The bridge meanwhile emulates Berry's (place) name-checking

Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the west behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia's always on my mind

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge...
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay

This was something of a Berry trope as he also did it on Sweet Little Sixteen

They're really rockin' in Boston, in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas and round the 'Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis and down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen

which is the track which Brian Wilson 'rewrote' as Surfin' U.S.A.

You'd catch 'em surfin' at Del Mar, Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestle, Australia's Narrabeen
All over Manhattan and down Doheny Way
Everybody's gone surfin' - Surfin' U.S.A.

Which brings us full circle!


Ringo never played Back In The USSR with the Beatles, but he did perform it with these guys...

More on Weird Al's songwriting here and here
Lennon With Chuck Berry
McCartney quotes are mostly from Many Years From Now via Beatles Bible and Beatles Songwriting And Recording Database For more on the Berry/Beach Boys plagiarism see Wikipedia

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Here's Something You Don't See Every Day

(Thank goodness!)

She's still the best one in her row.


(Update - for all those who asked it's from Heartbreakers a 2001 caper-romantic comedy film starring Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as a mother-daughter con artist team. Roger Ebert gave it 3 stars and Danny Elfman wrote the theme tune. It also features John Lennon's "Oh My Love").