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(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
After the serious tone of the "Sgt. Pepper" album, as well as their remaining 1967 output, The Beatles found themselves exhibiting a much more playful attitude. Yes indeed, tensions were very high during the "White Album" sessions as history shows, but when it came to subject matter, many of the songs it contained were less serious than its predecessor.
Humor, of course, can be found strewn into The Beatles compositions here and there throughout their career. But, most generally, the “White Album” shows all four composers dabbling with eccentric topics and musical arrangements that are intended to put a smile (or at least a smirk) on the listeners face. John displays it in “Bungalow Bill” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” Ringo in “Don't Pass Me By,” and even the ultra serious George injects some fun with “Piggies” and “Savoy Truffle.” Not one to be outdone, of course, is Paul, whose compositions therein include “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” “Why Don't We Do It In The Road” and, most noteworthy, “Rocky Raccoon.” Viewed by some as an embarrassing throwaway just after its release, it has stood the test of time and has become a quirky standard that gets increasing airplay as the years roll on.
The Beatles and Donovan in India, circa 1968
The song took shape while The Beatles were on retreat in Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968 while studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi. "I was sitting on the (ashram) roof in India with a guitar," Paul explained in 1968. "John and I were sitting 'round playing guitar, and we were with Donovan (Leitch). And we were just sitting around enjoying ourselves, and I started playing the chords of 'Rocky Raccoon,' you know, just messing around. And, oh, originally it was 'Rocky Sassoon,' and we just started making up the words, you know, the three of us - and started just to write them down. They came very quickly. And eventually I changed it from Sassoon to Raccoon, because it sounded more like a cowboy. So there it is."
As for the main characters' name, it has been rumored that “Rocky” was inspired by Roky Ericson, lead vocalist of the 60's psychedelic band “The 13th Floor Elevators.” The original last name “Sassoon” was said to have either been inspired by war poet Siegfried Sassoon or famous hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. None of these rumors have ever been confirmed by Paul.
As for the inspiration for the storyline, Paul once described the song as “a Mack Sennett movie set to music.” Mack Sennett was an innovator of slapstick comedy, famously dubbed the “King Of Comedy,” and has an extensive filmography that stretches from 1908 to 1914. Paul may also have had in mind, at least subconsciously, a famous poem by Robert W. Service from 1907 entitled “The Shooting Of Dan McGrew.” There are some similarities in the narrative, such as a love triangle, a gunfight, a male character named “Dan,” and the female character's name who is repeatedly referred to as “the lady that's known as Lou” (as apposed to “she called herself 'Lil' but everyone knew her as 'Nancy'”).
Paul, however, claims it all just came to them in the moment. “These kind of things – you can't really talk about how they come 'cause they just come into your head, you know. They really do! And it's like John writing his books. There's no...I don't know how he does it, and he doesn't know how he does it, but he just writes. I think people who actually do create and write...you tend to think, 'Oh, how did he do that,' but it actually does flow...just flows from into their head, into their hand, and they write it down, you know. And that's what happened with this. I don't know anything about the Appalachian mountains or cowboys and Indians or anything. But I just made it up, you know. And 'the doctor came in stinking of gin and proceeded to lie on the table.' So, there you are.”
As for the lyric about the “doctor,” Margo Stevens, Beatles fan and former “Apple Scruff,” has an idea about where this inspiration came from. “Paul had a moped which he came off one day in May 1966,” she explains in Steve Turner's book “A Hard Day's Write.” “He was a bit stoned at the time and cut his mouth and chipped his tooth. The doctor that came to treat him was stinking of gin and because he was a bit worse for wear he didn't make a very good job of the stitching which is why Paul had a nasty lump on his lip for a while.” This inspiration has also never been confirmed by Paul.
In Paul's book “Many Years From Now,” he goes into more detail about the writing of the song: “'Rocky Raccoon' is quirky, very me. I like talking-blues so I started off like that, then I did my tongue-in-cheek parody of a western and threw in some amusing lines. I just tried to keep it amusing, really; it's me writing a play, a little one-act play giving them most of the dialogue. Rocky raccoon is the main character, then there's the girl whose real name was Magill, who called herself Lil, but she was known as Nancy.”
He continues: “There are some names I use to amuse, Vera, Chuck and Dave or Nancy and Lil, and there are some I mean to be serious, like "Eleanor Ribgy," which are a little harder because they have to not be joke names. In this case Rocky Raccoon is some bloke in a raccoon hat, like Davy Crockett. The bit I liked about it was him finding Gideon's Bible and thinking, 'Some guy called Gideon must have left it for the next guy.' I like the idea of Gideon being a character. You get the meaning and at the same time get in a poke at it. All in good fun. And then of course the doctor is drunk. I'm not sure if I took my tape recorder, we often didn't, we often worked on songs as if they were poems and carried them in our heads. Which is actually the best way because you can revise them at any time.”
And revise he did, as evidenced in the lyrical differences found between the original May demo (which didn't include any involvement with a doctor), the early take of the song on the day it was officially recorded (which has Rocky coming from “a little town in Minnesota”) to the released version (which has Rocky originating “somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota”). In fact, the main story was completely written from early on, but the introduction and the section of the verse containing the doctor seemed to change to whatever popped into his mind at the time. Paul's voice saying, “I don't quite know the words to that verse yet!” was caught on tape during the actual recording of the song.
As to Donovan's involvement in writing the song, nothing has been verified. As for John, when asked in 1980 who wrote the song, he exclaimed: “Paul, can't you tell? Would I go through all that trouble about Gideon's Bible and that sort of thing? He maybe got stuck on a couple of lines that I helped on, but mainly it's him.”
George and John at 'Kinfauns," circa 1968
On May 29th, 1968, The Beatles recorded a demo version of "Rocky Raccoon" at George's 'Kinfauns' home in Esheer, Surrey on an Ampex four-track machine. The group had met on this and the previous day to record demos of songs they were to bring to EMI Studios in the upcoming months for inclusion on their next album.
The demo recorded on this day was very similar to what was to become the released version with the exception being the exclusion of the spoken-word introduction and the “doctor” section of the second verse, these not being formalized until he got into the studio two-and-a-half months later. This demo consisted of Paul double-tracking himself on acoustic guitar, George adding country-like acoustic guitar fills in between lyric phrases, and sporadic tambourine probably supplied by Ringo. The song concludes with a tricky surprise ending by George and Paul not unlike what they recorded for “Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby” back in 1964.
The “White Album” was a little over half finished by the time Paul brought “Rocky Raccoon” into EMI Studio Two on August 15th, 1968. The group arrived sometime after the documented 7 pm on this day and began rehearsing the song. Although George had contributed some suitable country guitar licks on the 'Kinfauns' demo outlined above, he sat out on the official recording of the basic track on this day, opting to occupy himself in the control room instead, evidenced by him announcing “take one” at the start of the recording process.
The instrumentation on the basic track was Paul on acoustic guitar and lead vocal, John on bass and Ringo on drums. “It was a difficult song to record,” Paul relates, “because it had to be all in one take, it would have been very hard to edit because of the quirkiness of the vocal, so I had to do a couple of takes until I got the right sort of feel. But it was fun to do.”
It actually took nine takes for Paul to get the right feel, as well as to ad lib a suitable spoken introduction and formulate the “doctor” section of the second verse. “Take eight,” which was eventually released on the compilation album “Anthology 3,” featured the following introduction: After John is heard suggesting the phrase “He was a fool unto himself,” Paul begins, “Rocky Raccoon...Rocky Raccoon, he was a fool unto himself. And he would not swallow his foolish pride. Mind you, coming from a little town in Minnesota, it was not the kind of thing that a young guy did when a fella went and stole his chick away from him.” An earlier take of this introduction even had him exclaim, “This here is the story of a young boy living in Minnesota...F*ck off!”
As for the verse about the “doctor,” Paul tried many things, such as “roll up his sleeves on the sideboard,” “roll over, Rock...he said ooh, it's OK doc, it's just a scratch and I'll be OK when I get home” and “move over doc, let's have none of your cock.” “Take eight” featured this attempt: “The doctor walked in shminking of gin...shminking?...and proceeded to lie on the table...he was really shminking of gin, and it did him in in the end...poor doc...meantime back on the table, yeah, the doctor said, 'Rock, you met your match, son.' Rocky said, 'It's only a scratch, son, I'll be better soon.' 'You better be better soon,' said the doc, 'Come on son, gotta get hip, gotta get up, gotta get back to your gun, gotta go shoot that Danny boy'...However...”
“Take nine” was the keeper, onto this Paul overdubbed an additional bass part and Ringo overdubbed another drum part. This filled up the four-track tape so a tape reduction was made to free up more tracks for overdubbing, the result being called “take ten.” Onto this, John added harmonica throughout most of the first verse and a harmonium in the first half of the second verse. George Martin added another keyboard, a honky-tonk piano in the refrains of the song. George Harrison then found his way out of the control room to help John and Paul record backing vocals. This completed the recording of “Rocky Raccoon.”
The session was not over though. George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith created the mono mix immediately after the song was recorded, this mix being the one issued on the mono version of the “White Album.” Only one try was needed to get it right, the announcement on tape of “RM1” being kept for posterity and added to one of the three ad lib tapes that were created for The Beatles. Tape copies of this mix, as well as the previously recorded “Yer Blues,” were made for John and Paul to take home. The session then came to a close at 3 am the following morning.
A further tape copy of the mono mix of “Rocky Raccoon” was made on August 23rd, 1968, along with four other previously recorded “White Album” tracks, all of which were taken away by assistant Mal Evans.
The stereo mix of the song was created on October 10th, 1968 by the same team of Martin, Scott and Smith in the control room of EMI Studio Two, only one attempt being needed for this also.
George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick returned to the master tapes of “Rocky Raccoon” sometime in 1996 to create a mix of “take eight” for inclusion on the album “Anthology 3,” thus giving an interesting birds-eye view of the jovial nature of the recording session of August 15th, 1968.
Song Structure and Style
On the surface, the structure for "Rocky Raccoon" is very simple, namely 'verse/ refrain/ verse/ refrain' (or abab) with a spoken word introduction thrown in at the beginning. It's unique in that the entire song follows a simple chord pattern repeated over and over again throughout while each of the verses are constructed of a wandering and indiscriminate length. The purpose of the verses is to tell a story, not to fit within the bounds of a predetermined set of measures. If it was a longer story, it would have had longer verses. If it was a shorter story, it would have had shorter verses. In fact, earlier takes of the song had different lengths of second verses since Paul hadn't quite decided on the exact story yet.
In any event, a ten measure introduction is heard first which consists of two measures of the first chord to get the ball rolling and then two repeats of the four-chord pattern with Paul's spoken word explanation of who Rocky is, where he came from, and then setting the stage for the drama that was to unfold. Rocky's “woman ran off with another guy” and, adding insult to injury, this guy “hit young Rocky in the eye,” him determined to seek revenge and get his girl back. He therefore “books himself a room in the local saloon” where he knows they are. The only instrumentation in this introduction is Paul on acoustic guitar and, briefly in the tenth measure, John blowing a few notes on harmonica.
Then comes the first verse, which is a whopping 28 measures long, since he has quite a detailed story to tell. The only thing to occupy Rocky in the room he's rented was “Gideon's Bible,” since television wasn't invented yet. He's not interested in that, though, especially the part about “Thou shall not kill.” He just sits there with the gun he brought contemplating how he's going to “shoot off the legs of his rival.” We are then introduced to his former “girl of his fancy,” who is actually known by three different names: “McGill,” “Lil” and “Nancy.” Her new beau “Dan” were next door at the “hoedown” when Rocky broke in and pulled out his gun. But Dan was the first to fire his weapon which resulted in Rocky on the ground “in the corner.”
Instrumentally, this long verse includes, other than Paul's continuing rhythm guitar and vocals, Ringo with a simple hi-hat beat that starts in the fourth measure, and both John and Paul's bass guitar work (Paul's is the more prominent one) starting in the ninth measure, and John's harmonica starting in the 20th measure signaled by the word “hoedown.” Ringo begins alternating his hi-hat beat with bass drum starting with the 13th measure and then accentuates the gunshot in the 26th measure with a snare drum flam.
An eight measure refrain then occurs with Ringo taking the song into double-time with his drum playing and George Martin dangerously sitting in on the saloon piano while bullets are flying. John apparently ducks for cover with his harmonica but Paul bravely sings a “da, da, da...doo, doo, doo” rendition of what the piano player is playing.
After a brief drum break from Ringo at the end of the eighth measure, he drops the tempo back as before so Paul can narrate the rest of the story in the second verse, which is sixteen measures long. George Martin even stops playing to witness what happens next, while John drops his harmonica and jumps on a nearby harmonium for the first eight measures.
“The doctor” arrives for a house call but, given the urgent request for his immediate presence, he was drunk from drinking gin. So drunk, in fact, that he “proceeded to lie on the table,” not being much help at all apparently. Rocky consoles the doctor and himself by minimizing the injury, saying “it's only a scratch and I'll be better.” This happy news even gives Ringo an excited burst of energy, him performing a jovial drum break in celebration. Humiliated, Rocky “fell back in his room” and figures that this guy named “Gideon,” in a great synchronicity, accidentally left his Bible in the room to initiate the young Rocky's “revival” from his injury and/or broken heart. Somehow our hero will carry on thanks to the healing power of God's word! A chorus of three men harmonize in the twelfth through sixteenth measures as an indication of Rocky's saved soul.
In jubilation, George Martin jumps back on the piano stool to reprise his role in the previous refrain along with the same instrumentation and vocalization as heard before. Paul repeatedly prods our hero on with encouraging words (“come on, Rocky boy!”) while John finds his dropped harmonica by the time the final measure of the song rings out.
Paul's pet project appears to have been well received by all involved, everyone giving it their all (except for George, unfortunately, who pretty much sat out for the entire proceedings). This sort of thing was usually a little too hokey for John but, possibly because of Yoko's presence in the studio, he showed himself a team player and put in a spirited performance. Of course, George Martin, the prolific pianist, was up for the task and created the perfect saloon atmosphere. And three cheers to Ringo, as usual, for doing what he always did best.
November 25th, 1968, was the American release date for the double-album "The Beatles," most commonly known as the "White Album." "Rocky Raccoon" was the third in the series of three animal songs featured concurrently on side two of the album, the first two being "Blackbird" and "Piggies." The album first appeared on compact disc on August 24th, 1987, then as a 30th Anniversary limited edition release on November 23rd, 1998, and then as a re-mastered CD on September 9th, 2009. The mono version of the album on vinyl wasn't released in the U.S. until November 9th, 2014.
A short lived format called “Playtapes” was on the market in America in the late 60's, Capitol jumping on the bandwagon by releasing various Beatles “Playtapes” to be played on portable players and as standard equipment in some Volkswagen models at that time. Five volumes were released to make available the majority of tracks from the “White Album” in this format in 1969, “The Beatles Vol. II” including “Rocky Raccoon” along with four other songs.
Sometime in 1982, a flexi-disc that featured “Rocky Raccoon” and “Why Don't We Do It In The Road?” was released as a promotional tool by Capitol/Evatone, these discs being given away at either “Musicland,” “Discount” or “Sam Goody” record stores whenever a Beatles album was purchased. This flexi-disc was printed on clear vinyl and adhered to the picture of The Beatles as found on the back cover of the “Hey Jude” album.
On October 28th, 1996, the compilation album “Anthology 3” was released which featured “take eight” of the basic track of “Rocky Raccoon” as recorded on August 15th, 1968. Fans then got to hear the laid-back fun approach The Beatles took when recording the song.
The entire mono Beatles catalog was released as a CD box set entitled “The Beatles In Mono” on September 9th, 2009, this set including the entire “White Album” in mono as released in Britain back in 1968.
Neither The Beatles nor McCartney as a solo act have even performed “Rocky Raccoon” live. Paul appears not to have been proud enough of the song to include it in a set list for any of his tours.
One thing that can be said about Paul McCartney as a composeer is that he always was true to himself. He was a very diverse songwriter who delivered material in a variety of styles. The other Beatles may have rolled their eyes whenever he offered up something away from the format they thought the group should focus on, but this didn't deter Paul one bit. After the group split up, he of course had free reign to go in whatever direction he wanted to. But then again, he always did anyway.
He may have been most prominently known for his ballads but his rockers could be blisteringly heavy. He prided himself on tackling any genre of music he set his mind to. One only has to examine the McCartney compositions on the “White Album” as proof. From parody rock (“Back In The U.S.S.R.”) to Jamaican (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) to tender love ballad (“I Will”) to experimental (“Wild Honey Pie”) to nostalgic pastiche (“Honey Pie”). And if he wants to write a cowboy song, dag nabbit, we will!
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
- Song Written: March to August 15, 1968
- Song Recorded: August 15, 1968
- First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
- First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles”
- US Single Release: Capitol/Evatone #420828cs
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles”
- Length: 3:33
- Key: C major
- Producer: George Martin
- Engineers: Ken Scott, John Smith
Instrumentation (most likely):
- Paul McCartney - Lead and Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (1967 Martin D-28), Bass (1964 Rickenbacker 4001 S)
- John Lennon - Bass Guitar (1961 Fender Bass VI), Harmonica (Hohner chromatic), Harmonium (Mannborg), backing vocals
- Ringo Starr - Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl)
- George Harrison - Backing vocals
- George Martin - Piano (1964 Challen “Jangle Box” upright 861834)
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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