Monday, 11 May 2015

10:42 Rocky Raccoon

Though not a kid's song, McCartney's child-friendly story (Ticket 64) captivated me as a kid listening to my sister's C120 cassette and I've never outgrown it. He was writing about “some bloke in a raccoon hat, like Davy Crockett”* but to 10 year old me it was a real gun-toting Racoon.

Writing And Recording

Rocky Sassoon was 'jammed' into life by Paul on a Rishikesh roof (with John Lennon and Donovan throwing in ideas) and recorded in a single session. Somewhere on the way to Abbey Road Rocky changed his name (thankfully!).

The White Album version is built on take 9 featuring McCartney (vocals and acoustic guitar), Starr (drums) and Lennon or possibly Harrison (bass). But Anthology has the unadorned take 8 and reveals the Beatles 'at play' in the most healthy way.

Though he later dismissed Rocky and his own part in it**, Lennon seems into it on take 8; maybe it was the Lennon-approved repetition, working quickly enough not to get bored or just being in a good mood that day.

It's amazing how much the two takes differ. There's a straighter strumming pattern, Lennon keeps switching between bass and harmonica, and the lyrics are all over the map (literally – Rocky is from Minnesota, not Dakota) revealing the semi-improvised nature of the song

Rocky Raccoon, he was a fool unto himself and he would not swallow his foolish pride

Earlier takes*** include

Roll up his sleeves on the sideboard/ roll over, Rock/ it's just a scratch/ I'll be OK when I get home and most memorably Move over doc, let's have none of your c**k

Once they nailed take 9 they added BVs, harmonica and harmonium**** (Lennon) and more drums and bass (Ringo and Paul). George Martin's patent sped-up Honky Tonk piano is a great touch, lending a bar room vibe which, like the snare drum 'gunshot' at 1:47-49, is an example of Madrigalism (Ticket 49).

Why Does It Work?

For me Rocky Raccoon is a great little song that shouldn't work. Five verses and two instrumental verses, all based on the same musical material, should be teeth-grindingly monotonous … but it's not (at least for me!). Verse 1 is a 'jazz-style intro verse' (Ticket 53). Opening bleakly on an A melody note (sung 22 times!) over an Am chord it sounds almost like an operatic recitative. In Paul's mind it's “talking-blues”. *****

A big part of the song's staying power the strength of the chord progression.

Am7      Am7
D7sus4  D7
G7         G7
C           C/B

In this simple 8 bar pattern we have a wealth of interesting things.

  • The D7 is an OOKC (Out Of Key Chord – Ticket 28)
  • We never get a IV chord (F) – one of the three most common chords (Ticket 7)
  • Within the chords we have a 'voice' descending chromatically from the b7th to the 5th - g - f# - f - e (Ticket 31).
g  (in Am7 and D7sus4)
f# (in D7)
f natural (in G7)
e  (in C major)

  • The basic progression itself is a 'circle of fourths' (Ticket 43) – A to D to G to C. The vi – ii – V – I is a very strong movement towards 'home', but the progression never rest. After one bar on the tonic (I), C major we immediately descend via the C/B to the vi (Am) and start all over again. This avoidance of the root chord (Ticket 6) gives tremendous forward momentum (you can hear McCartney doing the same thing in The Long And Winding Road).

A single chord pattern song is rare for the Beatles but such a multifaceted progression really keeps things interesting. There are other points too

Other Things

Though we have a fairly repetitive melody over changing chords (Ticket 48) it doesn't grate because the melody, like the chords, stays unresolved by avoiding the root (Ticket 50). The melody is mainly pentatonic (C D E G A) with the odd Eb bluesifying the melody (Ticket 22), especially on “broken his dreams” and in the hooky piano/scat singing instrumental (Ticket 3).

Well-drawn characters (Ticket 70), and some 'bookending': melodically, lyrically and dynamically, between verse 2 (checked into his room) and verse 5 (fell back in his room) really tie things together and avoid the song becoming a never-ending shaggy-dog story.

Yes! Apparently Rocket Racoon was based on the Beatles song! More background here


*Many Years From Now (p. 423)
**Paul [wrote it]. Couldn't you guess? Would I go to all that trouble about Gideon's Bible and all that stuff? John Lennon: All We Are Saying
***Abandoned lyrics are from The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions
**** The 'harmonium' (from 2:22) sounds much more like an accordion to me. You can hear Abbey Road's Mannborg Harmonium here
***** Beatles Interviews


Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Legend Of Liverpool Football Club (Djimi Traore)

Don't normally toot my own flugel horn here on BSA, but here's a new video for my (remixed) song Djimi Traore which gives a very big nod towards the Fab Four, both lyrically and musically. The Beatles played a significant role in the development of the terrace singing which the song celebrates.

Download Djimi Traore here
Read more about the song here


Monday, 13 April 2015

A Hard Day's Night Easter Eggs

This is more fanboy/geek than I normally like to do, but watching the reissued A Hard Day's Night on the big screen recently was a revelation - here's 3 things I noticed and 1 thing that everyone's seen before but is still cool...

Friday, 27 March 2015

Best Idea Wins

There was no real musical ego problem. There were a lot of other ego problems, but whoever had the best idea got their way. No one really stood on the cliff saying, "F**k you, no."

Ringo Starr: Rolling Stone Magazine

70+ Songwriting Tips From The Beatles

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!