Wednesday, 25 March 2015

FAWM 14, The Fab 4 And The Decisive 5

February Album Writing Month (FAWM) is just a warm memory now but I wanted to share a Beatles-flavoured spoken-word improv oddity from Paul Turrell (aka Hoopshank) - just like Yesterday it was inspired by a dream!

Enjoy The Decisive Five

Once upon a time, there were four red Mini Metros. 
[For those who don't know, the Mini Metro was a car made by the British manufacturer Austin intended to be a successor to the Mini. It was very popular in the UK but enjoyed nowhere near the international success of the original Mini]
In the first red Mini Metro were the four Beatles, all in a good mood. In the second red Mini Metro were the four Beatles, all slightly annoyed. In the third red Mini Metro were the four Beatles, all extremely angry. In the fourth red Mini Metro were one Beatle from each of the first three red Mini Metros. That's not to say that there were only three Beatles in each of the first three red Mini Metros - there were four. And there were four Beatles in the fourth red Mini Metro, even though there was only one Beatle from each of the first three red Mini Metros. The sixteen Beatles in the four red Mini Metros were having an argument which was eventually resolved. So who were the decisive five?

You can check out my FAWM songs here especially I Too Need Love - the Harrison/Beatles influenced song I wrote and recorded from scratch in 58 minutes

Monday, 23 March 2015

Yesterday And The Myth Of Inspiration

Songwriting is the closest thing to magic there is. No one understands it – even the people who do it. If you want to get theological, singing a song is the closest humans get to the divine act of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Forget cleanliness, songwriting is next to godliness.

But if songwriting is a deep impenetrable mystery, what have I been doing here at Beatles Songwriting Academy for the last 5 years? If songs are things that just happen to songwriters why does anyone try to analyse it?

People who push the 'songwriting as alchemy' line usually wheel out this fact

Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday in a dream!

In a dream. In fact 'wrote' is often replaced by 'it came to him...'

Yesterday 'came to' Paul McCartney in a dream!

It might have 'come to' John Lennon or Keith Richards or Peter Asher or Mary Quant or Michael Caine or my Dad. But it came to Paul McCartney.

A message from the gods? A kiss from his muse? A belch from his subconscious? Who knows?

No one, that's who.

And if it came to him while he was snoring in the attic of Jane Asher's family how could Paul (or anyone else) make it happen again? It's magic. We might as well give up.

But I don't believe songwriting is magic. Inspiration is magic. Songwriting is a craft. Everyone, EVERYONE, gets inspired. But only a special kind of person can turn inspiration into a thing that can be shared with others. They're called artists. An artist who knows how to turn inspiration into a song is called a songwriter. The story of Yesterday proves it.

Because Paul McCartney didn't write Yesterday in a dream.

He wrote the melody in a dream. In fact he wrote the verse melody in a dream.

7 bars. 29 notes.

Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum

that's all.

What Really Happened

Rolling out of his bed he went to the piano and figured out the tune, and no doubt began harmonising it. But inspiration was already beginning to be replaced by perspiration. Though music theory remains a mystery to Macca he was bringing to bear a vast amount of practical experience in harmonisation.

Paul, unable to believe he hadn't subconsciously ripped off an old standard, played it to the Ashers, George Martin and anyone else who would listen asking if they recognised it.

Then came the dummy lyrics (the equally legendary “scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs”) and the bridge.

The bridge was pure craft – hammered away on piano during every break in the filming of Help! to the point of driving director Richard Lester nuts.

But still no lyrics. All McCartney knew was he wanted the opening phrase to have three syllable words. He started mulling them over driving to Portugal with Jane Asher. Staying at the villa of Shadows' guitarist Bruce Welch he fleshed out the lyrics. He didn't have a piano at his disposal - he didn't even have a left handed guitar - so playing a 'righty' upside down and Yesterday became a guitar tune. Rather than playing the song in F he detuned the guitar a tone and played it in G.

Back in London the song was ready to be presented to the band. But no one could think of anything to do on it, so it became the first Beatles 'solo number'. On the same day the band cut I’ve Just Seen A Face and I’m Down (14 June 1965) McCartney did two live takes and it seemed like the song was done, until George Martin suggested adding strings. Paul (thinking Mantovani) wasn't convinced but George (thinking Bach) won the day.

So here's a list of what 'came to' Paul in a dream

  • The verse melody
  • Some version of the verse chords

Here's what was the result of craft

  • The full verse chords
  • The bridge melody
  • The bridge chords
  • All the lyrics
  • The guitar arrangement
  • The string arrangement

The most recorded song in the world would never have been finished without craft.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Paul McCartney - Songwriter's Songwriter

The great thing about songwriting is we don't know how we do it, so you can't talk about it. 

Paul McCartney won the “Songwriter's Songwriter” award at the NME Awards in Texas. This is his speech in full

First of all, let's hear it for the NME. Got to give it up for the NME, man. Well, the NME for me brings back so many memories. It's been going longer than I have. I saw the very first picture of Elvis in the NME. Back page was an advert for 'Heartbreak Hotel.' We'd never seen him but we'd heard him. There he was. Buddy Holly, I saw all of that, the news coming in that he was visiting England. And it was really inspirational for us all because he sang and he wrote the songs and he did the solos as well, so it was very inspirational. And then finally, we got down to London and got to meet the people on the NME and that was another, wow!

One of the things we used to try and do was to plant a false story in the NME. And we actually got with George was Billy Fury's cousin, which he wasn't. Living on the edge, man. Anyway, come on, John Cooper Clarke (British performance poet). It's all there.

And so anyway, songwriting, the thing about songwriting, the great thing is we don't know how we do it, so you can't talk about it. Thank you!

Capturing Michelle

[Michelle was] very easy to mix. There were no decisions to make, we'd made them all in the writing and in the recording... we would mix [songs], and it would take half an hour, maybe. Then it would go up on a shelf, in a quarter-inch tape box. And that was it ... I advise young groups these days, write 'em great, rehearse them up so you know 'em, have a good relationship between yourselves and go in and record them the simplest possible way that you can, mix it that day and have done with it. I wish I could take my own advice.

Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (p.275)

Michelle was recorded in it's entirety on November 3rd 1965

70+ Songwriting Tips From The Beatles

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Reading List

I'm often asked if I've read a particular book on the Beatles. Here's what I've got waiting on the bookshelf

You Never Give Me Your Money - The murky story of fabs finance

All We Are Saying - Lennon's last interview

Tune In Vol 1 - The book I swore I'd never read. 800 pages and it only goes up to 1962

The Beatles As Musicians: Rubber Soul To Anthology - Super in depth music theory

In His Own Write/A Spaniard In The Works - Lennon channeling the Goons comedy prose

Any other MUST read recommendations?


Monday, 16 March 2015

Book Review: Revolver. How The Beatles Reimagined Rock 'N' Roll

Here's my first video book review of 2015. More to come!


Blessed Are The Drug Free [Single Edit]

[For the full version of this post (including footnotes) click here]

Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid

If you believe drugs don't do anything good for us do me this favour; go home tonight, take all your albums and burn em, cos the musicians who made all that great music [were] real f**kin high on drugs. S**t, the Beatles were so high they let Ringo sing a couple of tunes.

Great music + They were high = Drugs had a positive effect. Shall I walk you through it again?

Bill Hicks

It is a truth universally acknowledge that the Beatles took a lot of drugs. And the more drugs they took, the more original they became. You can even catalogue their albums by drug

John: Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid

Drugs expanded their consciousness and informed their dress sense

George: In ten minutes I lived a thousand years

Ringo: It brought me closer to nature...and you dress differently, too!

It's believed that drugs did them no lasting harm - no one in the band died* - and to this day McCartney is a low-key poster boy for long term marijuana use. So it's odd to cite the Beatles as proof that recreational drugs are bad news for creativity, songwriting and a lasting career in music.

Drugs helped the Beatles make great music. But how much did it help? Did it ever hinder them? Were the gains outweighed by the downside? Could they (or did they) gain the same benefit from other less chemical means?

Let's look at the evidence in three area - recording, writing and life in general.

Tuning up is a bit of a chore when you're stoned

Paul (MYFN p.192)

The Beatles used drugs far less often in the studio than is commonly believed

Geoff Emerick: The Beatles … rarely imbibed while they were working

Barry Miles: Most of their recording...was assisted by cups of tea, fish and chips or chinese takeaway, and maybe marijuana

Paul: We had a certain attitude towards EMI, that it was a workplace ... most of our best stuff was done under reasonably sane circumstances … you've really got to get the miracle take if you're stoned

Ringo: We found out very early on that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way it was really sh**ty music

When they did get high in the studio the result were generally poor. Lennon took acid during sessions for Getting Better and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da but the only results were a bad trip and slightly better piano intro.

From '67 onwards Emerick posits their drug intake as the reason they were becoming “a bit complacent and lazy” spending “hours in a stoned haze, jamming endlessly... and pointlessly ... it was the first Beatles session I'd ever attended where absolutely nothing was accomplished

Ringo speaking many years later would concur

When we did take too many substances, the music was sh*t, absolute sh*t

The reason such sessions were the exception was because the strung out musicians always had straight engineers and producers in charge

George Martin: There's no doubt that, if I too had been on dope, Pepper would never have been the album it was ... they often got very giggly, and it frequently interfered with our work

[Pot] got in the way of songwriting because it would just cloud your mind up


So getting high while the tape is rolling is a bad idea. But one of the few times the Beatles wrote while high (in true pot-head style) they spent hours creating a multi-coloured illuminated manuscript for The Word instead of just noting the lyrics down.

Beer and Preludin - that's how we survived


Marijuana, alcohol and nicotine may have helped them relax but arguably the most helpful drugs the Beatles took were Benzedrine and Preludin which allowed the boys to cram their '10,000 hours' of practice in Hamburg into an insanely short period of time. Cocaine had a similar (but more limited) impact on Paul.

I did cocaine for about a year around the time of Sgt Pepper ... eventually I just started to think ... this doesn't work. You've got to put too much in to get too little high out it.

Lennon agreed

I had a lot of [cocaine] in my day, but I don't like it. It's a dumb drug. Your whole concentration goes on getting the next fix.

Though Lennon always spoke well of LSD it seems to have had a devastating impact on him

I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego, and I did … I didn't believe I could do anything. I let Paul do what he wanted

According to Ian MacDonald acid left Lennon “a mental wreck struggling to stitch himself back together” (RITH p.193). On 18 May 1968 he called a business meeting at Apple to announce he was Jesus Christ. The next night he recorded the Two Virgins album with Yoko Ono, Marking the start of their relationship. Lennon became addicted to heroin shortly after, partly in an attempt to wean himself off acid.

Ringo by his own admission “got lost in a haze of alcohol and drugs” and missed most of the 1980's

I’ve got photographs of me playing all over the world but I’ve absolutely no memory of it. I played Washington with the Beach Boys – or so they tell me.

John had a similar but shorter bender, the infamous 'Lost Weekend' (1973-75), Harrison “Snort[ed] mountains of cocaine to keep going” and “absolutely shredded” his voice during the Dark Horse album and tour (1973–74).

Paul's drug busts in the 70's and 80's have caused massive financial losses and cancelled tours and his pot habit has arguably been a factor in the poor quality of his later solo output - “he would go upstairs and smoke a joint...then he'd come down and sit there for hours trying to play the bass” says producer Hugh Padgham.

Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?

Remember the way Lennon categorised the albums by drugs? Here's what he actually said in full,

Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid. I mean, we weren't all stoned making Rubber Soul because in those days we couldn't work on pot. We never recorded under acid or anything like that. It's like saying, 'Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?' What the f**k does that have to do with it? The beer [and] the drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. They don't make you write better. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid.

Crediting any Beatles song to the drugs they took is as almost as ridiculous as crediting Balzac's novels to caffeine. It's is the person who creates the art, not the drugs.

Based on a novel by a man named Lear

The Beatles Bible says “there is little doubt that the Through The Looking Glass imagery was the product of drug intake”. But surely the primary source of Lennon's “Through The Looking Glass imagery” is Through The Looking Glass itself, a book Lennon revered. Likewise, though acid inspired Tomorrow Never Knows, the lyrics came straight from Timothy Leary book The Psychedelic Experience. As his own books prove, Lennon was creating psychedelic prose long before he dropped acid.

The Beatles wrote songs about drugs (Yer Blues, Got To Get You Into My Life, Everybody's Got Something To Hide...) but that's not the same as writing on drugs. Acid trips provided the first two lines for I Am The Walrus but the rest came from Carroll, nursery rhymes and police sirens.

To get really high you have to go it straight


The Beatles proved that recreational drugs have some benefits for creativity. But they also have a massive downside on life and mental wellbeing in general, and creativity and productivity in particular. Many, if not all, of the same benefits can be gained through limiting your options, writing to deadlines and reading great literature. As Frank Zappa said

I don't use any [drugs] and I've never encouraged it. The same state of psychedelic happiness can be induced through dancing, listening to music, holding your breath and spinning around, and any number of the old, easy to perform and 100 per cent legal means – all of which I endorse.

For a full list of sources and footnotes, see the expanded version of this post
Read what other artist have to say about the intersection of drugs and creativity here

Other links