Being a massive Beatles fan, it’s no surprise that “The Sound of Science” is my favorite Beastie Boys track. I can actually still remember hearing it for the first time, one night in 1994 on Chris Morris’ short-lived Radio 1 show, and thinking “Wait, is that sampling The Beatles?” in surprise. The smartness of the samples – from “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (both versions, unless I’m mishearing) and “The End,” respectively – is one of the reasons that I love the song so much, the way that the first three sound at once familiar and unusual, with the looped drums from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” giving the song more impetus and immediacy than the final version arguably has.
The sampled guitar from “The End” sounds great, too, but what I love most about the song is the placement of that guitar. There’s something just perfect to me about the juxtaposition of Mike D’s “Do whatcha like, huh?” at 1:57 with the guitar that immediately follows – It gives the guitar more attitude, somehow, and yet feels utterly appropriate for the track it’s lifted from (“The End” being a series of improvised guitar solos traded between John, George and Paul, literally them doing what they like, even as the song’s lyrics suggest that we be a little more conscientious in our actions) and the Beatles in general.
Accidentally or otherwise, that verbal shrug is something that I always attribute not to the Beasties, but to the Beatles now; somehow, it switched tracks in my brain and belongs with them. I like to think that the Beatles that were, back when, would’ve heard this track and wished they’d made it themselves.
If only this song had been released post-White Album, I could make a joke about this being what John Lennon did after he was so tired, but sadly reality doesn’t want to play along. It’s tempting to use the lightness of this song as an argument for whatever drug the Beatles were on at the time (Revolver, so I guess it was either the end of pot or the start of LSD?) against the heroin that was beginning to creep into their lives around the time of “I’m So Tired,” considering the contrasting natures of both songs. The track as recorded definitely overdoes the sound effects – potentially as a way of livening up what is actually a pretty simple, throwaway track that doesn’t have a lot of “there” there, as the saying goes – but it’s pretty much the definition of “lightweight and agreeable,” for that. If the intent when writing this song was to come up with something that feels as insubstantial as air, Lennon did a pretty good job with this one, let’s be honest.
Something somewhat unusual: The song was speeded up during mastering, which is why Lennon’s voice sounds as high as it does in the version above. Because it’s the Beatles, of course there’s a bootleg of the original version at the original speed…
And yet, the original demo for the song…? It’s back at the faster speed. Perhaps the band ended up recording it slower than Lennon intended for some reason, with the intent that they’d just fix things later…?
Let’s just call this a thematic choice, considering my current state of mind.
We’re veering deeply towards self-indulgent John Lennon with this song – I don’t know why, but there’s something about the vocals that give it away for me, whenever he’s trying or not – but there’s still a lot to like about “I’m So Tired,” not least of which is the fact that it’s less a song than a feeling. After all, there really is a laziness and lethargy to the opening of the track, a sense of the exhaustion that’s so haunting Lennon (“I’m going insane,” remember). That the song builds from there into something… else. I love that the entire song feels monotonous even as it builds to the sudden end (There’s a thudding repetition to the “No joke/It’s doing me harm” section, as if it really wants to rock out but just can’t get the energy); listening to this, it’s hard to not feel an apathy setting into your head. It’s music as virus, in many ways.
The guitars actually chime. There’s something about this song that still surprises, years after I first heard it and almost four decades after it was first recorded; the sound of the guitars, the texture they create and structure they build. This is guitar music as crystalline palace, as something to feel all around you and get lost inside. Close your eyes as you listen and follow the music as it towers up all over you, and you’ll see what I mean.
(And those vocals: “I said,” stretching the word, taking it outside of language and into pure sound. Such a great song.)
I don’t know what it says about me that I woke up, on my birthday, with this song in my head:
The Rutles are, of course, the parody band that managed to somehow be so good that you can listen to their songs as songs and not jokes. Sure, there are some funny lyrics in here – “You’re so pusillanimous, oh yeah” isn’t something that many pop songs would try to work in, let’s be honest (Here’s what pusillanimous means, by the way) – but it all works as a song; the melody is wonderful, and it’s amazingly catchy. Neil Innes, who wrote all of the songs for both Rutles albums, really was a heavily underrated musical genius.
The song is, according to the Rutles’ fake chronology, something that belongs in the White Album era, and yet it’s arguably more durable than a lot of Paul McCartney’s contributions of that time, whom it most closely resembles; somewhere, there’s a universe where the Rutles were real, revolutionized pop music and had a very different, and somewhat happier, ending than the Beatles. Or, at least, they had the good sense to do a farewell album with this song on it:
(The Rutles’ parody of the Beatles’ “Free As A Bird” was also better than the real thing, for what it’s worth:
Still over-produced – Maybe that was the point? – but at the heart of it, this is a better song than “Free As A Bird,” let’s be honest…)
If you look past the growly vocal from Paul McCartney, there’s a sense of age evident in the final three tracks from the final Beatles album (Except, in both cases, not really; although recorded last, Abbey Road was followed by Let It Be in terms of release, and “Her Majesty” follows “The End” on the album, anyway); it’s in the grandiose orchestral arrangement of “Carry That Weight,” with the horns parping their importance before the song segues into an unbilled reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money” from earlier in the album, or the strings surrounding the band as they sing “You’re gonna carry that weight, a long time” afterwards, like some John Barry Bond theme gone wrong. There’s a syrup-y sound here, something that feels at odds with the way the band had treated their arrangements before this point.
The age thing makes itself apparent in the lyrics, too; “Once there was a way/To get back homewards/Once there was a way/To get back home,” McCartney sings, with the clear implication that that’s not there anymore. Everyone joins in to remind themselves that they’re gonna carry that weight a long time, and McCartney goes on to admit, “In the middle of the celebrations/I break down…”
(That the “Boy! You’re gonna carry that weight” part is a group vocal has always made me wonder whether it’s meant to be supportive or taunting, the sound of the Beatles talking to Paul with disdain or understanding. Chances are, even McCartney himself didn’t know when he wrote it, so complicated were his relationships with the band at the time.)
And then, before everything gets too maudlin – because this is a sad suite, a collection of melancholy and loss, of the bad kind of nostalgia where you look back with regret that things aren’t the way they used to be – “The End” kicks in. Oh yeah! Alright!
Here, let’s listen to the track as released on the Anthology album decades later, without the “Oh yeah!” introduction, just to hear the band jam their little hearts out, but also with the orchestral elements more noticeable (And, yes, the final chord from “A Day In The Life” added at the end):
I love “The End,” in either version. Again, it’s very un-Beatles in a lot of ways, because when did they do solos like this? Because, at its heart, that’s what “The End” is: A collection of solos, whether it’s Ringo’s drum solo to start off, before John, George and Paul trade lead guitar lines as the race to the vocal pay-off. There’s a sense of playfulness, of trying to outdo each other with the music, of fun, in “The End” that almost balances out the sense of loss in the earlier two chapters of this medley; despite everything, they can still communicate through song. And then, the lyrics, again the work of someone feeling old, addressing a conclusion. What makes the end of “The End” so emotional for me, though, isn’t the “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to/The love you make” by itself, but the harmonies immediately following, soaring upwards. It’s so sad, and so optimistic, at the same time.
I love that above animation (from the end of the Beatles Rock Band videogame); it’s very informed by the iconography of the ’60s and of the Beatles themselves, but it’s also… I don’t know. Empty enough, silent enough, to get something about the melancholy present even in those final notes across in a beautifully subtle way.
For all that “Only A Northern Song” devolves into aimless free jazz noodling and one of George Harrison’s most dirgy melodies (I think it’s really his particularly flat vocal that makes it feel that way; it almost sounds as if it was recorded and then slowed down, oddly enough), there are two things that make his song worth keeping on your digital music device of choice. The lyrics, obviously, are one; somewhere between sarcastic good natured ribbing and bitter meanness about the Lennon/McCartney dominance of the band’s songwriting chores (“Northern Songs” being the publishing company that took care of songs by the two during their Beatles output, for those who didn’t make the connection through the lyrics alone). Suddenly, lines like “If you’re listening to this song/You may think the chords are going wrong/But they’re not/He just wrote them like that” and the much more bitter “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/When it’s only a Northern Song” make a little more sense, right…?
Less meta and more groovy is the second reason: Listen to that spectacular opening.
Man, work that organ. Both of Harrison’s original contributions to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack have this same thing going on: Unworked, somewhat ramshackle songs with absolutely blinding openings. And as great as “Only A Northern Song” is, I’m seriously not sure if many other Beatles song had an opening quite as wonderful as “It’s All Too Much”:
“Hey Bulldog” may be my very favorite Beatles song. It’s the gallop of the thing, the momentum (Ringo working his heart out on the drums, the way he played them that sounded as if they had such forward momentum that he couldn’t stop without falling over; Paul’s amazing bassline dragging him forward, pulling you into the song), the way the guitar solo feels like it comes out of nowhere like an attack, and the humanity of the chorus. There is no way I could fail to love a song that tells the listener “You can talk to me/If you’re lonely you can talk to me” (As proof, I have a sneaking liking for this song, which is more than a little terrible on almost all objective levels).
This song, for me, is the definition of “forgotten classic”: It’s on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack and nowhere else, and I’d argue that there’s a fair percentage of people who’d call themselves Beatles fans who’ve never even heard it despite it being one of Lennon’s last great songs with the band. I remember, back when EMI was preparing to issue the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album, that there were rumors that they’d discovered a previously unknown Lennon song to accompany it, only for it to turn out to be a remixed version of this, and people were still “Wait, is that new?”
There’s something about the Beatles’ version that’s perfectly balanced between raucous and melodic that gets lost when others cover it, for me. Listen to Miles Kane’s version –
– or, of all unlikelinesses, That Petrol Emotion:
The song is just… less exciting, somehow. The original version of “Hey Bulldog” is something that, like many Beatles songs, is somehow so right that every single other take on it can only be less interesting, less worthy of attention, less… right, really. You can disagree, but it won’t change my mind.
For the longest time, I didn’t own “Rain” (It’s not on any of the “real” albums, just the Past Masters compilation, because it was a b-side), but it’s long been one of my favorite Beatles songs for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; I’ve often said that I love it for its cultural importance, which is true – It’s apparently the first pop song to have an explicitly “them vs. us” setting – but the truth is, even before I thought about it in those terms, I was smitten. There’s something about the loping quality to the sound, the tight snare that starts the song before it melts into something more amorphous, the harmonies and the way that the harmonized lyrics get stretched so far that they seem as if they’re just sounds rather than words (“Rain” becomes “Rai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ain,” for example)… plus, of course, that bassline (I suspect that Paul McCartney’s basslines on John Lennon’s latter, LSD-inspired songs are a strong draw for me; see “Hey Bulldog” for proof).
There was one summer, back when I was a student and given to walking 45 minutes into town on good weather days, that I was wandering along with this song in my head and, as my internal jukebox got to the chorus, a car drove past with it blaring out of the windows at exactly the same point as it’d been playing in my head. It was a strange coincidence, and a sign, I was convinced; an omen that good things were about to happen in some way.
The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night album was one of those objects that you idolize and fetishize when you’re a kid, something that has some inexplicable magic that you can’t explain when you’re an adult years later – It was the Beatles album that my parents had with the most interesting cover (There was Hard Days Night, Beatles For Sale and… another one, I can’t remember which. Something early, though), and that was the sole reason I kept playing it when I was a kid, skipping from track to track and always hearing the end of the one before or the start of the one after because I could never get the needle up or down on the record at the right time. With vinyl and the crappy record player we had, there was a weight to the drum snap at the start of “Any Time At All,” a thud that made the pre-teen me excited because it felt like something important was happening, something more than just a song starting.