christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: harrison

Supercharged Doowop

Brian Eno once said that ‘all the world’s major problems can be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals.’

When it comes to The Beatles, there was not really a problem to solve and backing vocals were rarely used to fix sub standard material. However like Harrison’s distinctive and melodic guitar parts, they somehow became integral to the composition. More so than almost any other group, it is sometimes hard to determine which elements are intrinsic to the song, and which aren’t. For example, it is impossible to imagine a version of Twist and Shout without its layers of ever more excitable vocals; Here, There and Everywhere is still a pretty song without the backing vocals, but it’s an infinitely finer, sweeter, complex and melancholic one with them. Listen to almost any Beatles song and there are some very strange things going on with the harmonies; try Fixing a Hole for size and the harmony as they zoom into the bridge on I Feel Fine is almost the definitive Beatles moment.   

 

Even when they were strictly a four piece band: two guitars, bass and drums, their best instrument was still their voices. They expertly aped what they heard on the discs coming in from America and instinctively found sympathetic harmonies for their own songs. Their songs harnessed the natural musicality of their Liverpool accents. You only need to think of that final vocal chord in She Loves You to be reminded of their genius. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

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Were Decca right to turn down The Beatles?

It’s a preposterous question, of course. But let’s look at the evidence. Without the benefit of foresight – the Ed Sullivan Show, the Technicolor glory of Sergeant Pepper and John Lennon in a fur coat on a London rooftop – all they had to go on were the tracks The Beatles recorded for them on New Year’s Day 1962: a slightly bizarre selection of novelty tunes and standards chosen by Brian Epstein to showcase his boisterous charges.

After fishing an old copy of Anthology 1 out of the British Heart Foundation charity shop last weekend, I listened again to five of the tracks recorded that day. And the choices and performances seem odd indeed.   

Seasoned from long residencies in Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles were without question a magnificently tight unit. The drum fills and guitar flourishes are drilled to precision and the band could stop on a dime (or sixpence) when required; they loved to come to a dramatic halt mid -song often followed by a sotto voice pronouncement  (think of Paul’s slightly wobbly solo line in Love Me Do or in Like Dreamer’s Do).

Three Cool Cats is a savvy piece of Brill Building song writing but listening now, it sounds hilariously un-PC. George, not yet an entirely confident vocalist, takes the lead and while the performance is spirited, it feels a little flat in places. Paul and John, the other cats, each make a comedy contribution in the form of a silly voice (‘Looky there!’) –  John in a rather dodgy Arabic accent. Considering the stakes, The Beatles certainly seem relaxed, larking around as if playing to a half empty room of drunken sailors.

Searchin’ (another Leiber/Stoller composition – the ubiquitous songwriting duo soon to by usurped by Lennon/McCartney) finds The Beatles’ bursting with confidence.  They expertly deliver a supercharged of The Coaster’s 1957 hit. But Paul’s vocal is highly Americanised – almost a pastiche of the soul shouting they so admired. And there is some curious high pitched gurgling half way through.

The Sheik of Araby meanwhile is firmly back in novelty territory. Another comedy effort, although delivered entirely straight by George, it could have been part a Morecambe and Wise sketch, complete with Fez hats. Beginning with a comedy instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place in a pantomime of Aladdin, the song even features some Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman ‘Not Arfs!’ When their whole future was riding on the session, not least the 17 shillings a piece for the night in the posh hotel that Epstein stumped up, it all seems rather baffling. It’s telling that none of these tracks ultimately made it onto a Beatles’ album. Another effort on the day was Besame Mucho, a Mexican bossa nova written by a fifteen year old. It’s hardly Twist and Shout.  

It’s all quite revealing as to how the Beatles saw themselves in 1962 – not just as graduates of rock and roll but also part of a wider culture of light entertainment. In an effort to be true to themselves, they perhaps portrayed themselves as more eclectic than might have been prudent when the label was simply looking for some straightforward rockers. But the Goon Show and Morecambe and Wise were as much part of The Beatles’ upbringing as Elvis and it was an essential part of the mix. Their wild success at the Royal Variety Show the following year proved their instincts right. The band’s quirky tastes and comic sensibilities would gain full rein in such tunes as Rocky Raccoon, You Know my Name (Look up the Number) and Honey Pie.

So we know what happened next. Decca banked on The Tremeloes instead (who auditioned the same day), while palming the Fabs off with the made their famous prophesy: ‘guitar groups are on the way out .’ and the even more damning: ‘the Beatles have no future in show business.’ Decca’s loss was EMI’s gain, who went on to build forty years of prosperity on the band before disappearing down a venture capitalist’s plughole. Still if they had been taken on, The Beatles would never have met George Martin and the 20th century might have sounded different entirely. On that London rooftop seven year’s later, as part of their last public performance, John Lennon quipped for posterity and perhaps to those suits at Decca still in the back of his mind: ‘I hope we’ve passed the audition.’   

But it’s an interesting question to pose fifty year’s on. If only they had sung I Saw Her Standing There, the world might have been a different place.