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(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
History has shown that The Beatles were overwhelmingly viewed as trend-setters, not trend-followers. The Band was continually redefining itself with every album and single that they released. If you were privileged to have had a recording contract in the mid- to late-60's, even if you felt you had established yourself with a substantial degree of success, you were still wise to observe which musical direction The Beatles were going in and then slant your next release in that direction as well. The music of that decade is rife with examples, from fellow British acts to American artists, Motown hits included!
However, The Beatles were just as observant of musical trends as anyone else was. One case in point was the re-emergence of the genre of music called the Blues. British groups such as The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Yardbirds infused the Blues into their songwriting as well as incorporating classic Blues compositions into their repertoire. By 1968, a British Blues boom was developing, with Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience among others leading the way.
It's easy to notice that The Beatles had been open to taking a stab at just about any genre of music they set their attention to, and doing so quite convincingly as well as successfully. With this in mind, John Lennon thought to give the Blues a go as well. Why not give it a try? The result was the semi-serious and semi-tounge-in-cheek “Yer Blues.”
John and Cynthia Lennon in Rishikesh, India, 1968
"Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing, I did write some of my best songs while I was there." This quote from John Lennon in 1971 explains his experience with the other Beatles while in Rishikesh, India with the Maharishi in the spring of 1968, the purpose of this excursion being to study and practice meditation. "The experience was worth it if only for the songs that came out."
Lennon continues: “The funny thing about the camp was that although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In 'Yer Blues,' when I wrote, 'I'm so lonely I want to die,' I'm not kidding. That's how I felt.” In his 1980 Playboy interview, John explains that the song was “written in India...up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.”
It has been speculated that John had been feeling that he was at a crossroads in his life. The Beatles had stopped touring, his marriage to Cynthia was in a shambles, and he was currently obsessed with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono at this time. Cynthia was present with John in India but was separated from him for a good amount of the time because of their meditation practices. Adding to the distraction were the letters from Yoko that John was receiving during their stay. These feelings resulted in the composition “Yer Blues,” a title which he described as “just a pun,” undoubtedly inspired by the current popularity of British Blues music and the highly disputed topic, “Can white men sing the blues?”
“There was a self-consciousness about suddenly singing blues,” John related in 1970, adding, “I was self-conscious about doing it.” Nonetheless, he combined his deep emotional turmoil with imagery culled from classic Blues artists such as Robert Johnson (as in his “Hell Hound On My Trail”) as well as the character “Mr. Jones” from Bob Dylan's song “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” The “Mr. Jones” reference is quote appropriate given that, in Dylan's song, the more questions he asks the less the world makes sense to him. Hence, John sings: “Feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's 'Mr. Jones.'” Yoko's influence can also be deciphered in the lyrics “My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth, but I am of the universe,” which is quite reminiscent of her poetry.
“I never enjoyed writing third person songs,” John explained. “Most of my songs, the good ones, are in the first person.” John was obviously very proud of the songs he wrote that could adequately express his pain, something he continued to do in his early solo career and evidenced in the single “Cold Turkey” and the album “Plastic Ono Band.” As for “Yer Blues,” he was proud enough of the song to perform it for the aborted television show “Rock And Roll Circus” in late 1968 and for his premier “Plastic Ono Band” appearance in Toronto in late 1969, his only “White Album” composition that he felt strongly enough to continue to perform.
May 28th, 1968, was the first of two consecutive days that The Beatles assembled at George's "Kinfauns" home in Surrey, Kent, to record demos of songs they were considering for their upcoming album which they were due to begin officially recording on May 30th of that year. John had written a slew of new songs while in India and "Yer Blues" was among the first to be demoed on this day at George's house.
This recording consisted of John on two different acoustic guitar parts and double-tracked vocals along with George doodling on lead acoustic guitar passages and Paul and Ringo on bongos and tambourine. The lyrics were pretty much in place at this point with a couple of exceptions. The third verse was sung as “My mother was of the earth, my father was of the sky, but I am of the universe and that's the reason why,” John reversing the identification of his parents in the finished version. Also, the fourth verse states “Feel so insecure, now, just like Dylan's 'Mr. Jones',” which he changed to “suicidal” when the song was officially recorded. John gets tripped up with his tempo and time-signature changes during this demo as well. Otherwise, this is a very compelling acoustic version of the song.
The official recording of “Yer Blues” at EMI Studios was predated by a conversation that transpired on August 12th, 1968, when George Harrison wanted to record his lead vocals onto his song “Not Guilty” in the control room. Engineer Ken Scott recalls: “George had this idea that he wanted to do it in the control room with the speakers blasting, so that he got more of an on-stage feel...I remember that John Lennon came in at one point and I turned to him and said, 'Bloody hell, the way you lot are carrying on you'll be wanting to record everything in the room next door!' The room next door was tiny, where the four-track tape machines were once kept, and it had no proper studio walls or acoustic set-up of any kind. Lennon replied, 'That's a great idea; let's try it on the next number!' The next number was 'Yer Blues' and we literally had to set it all up – them and the instruments – in this minute room. That's how they recorded 'Yer Blues,' and it worked out great!”
John brought “Yer Blues” into EMI Studio Two the following day, on August 13th, 1968, the session beginning sometime after the usually designated 7 pm. The first order of business was recording a re-remake of the song “Sexy Sadie” which took the time to approximately 1 am the following morning. Then, as John previously requested, they had the studio crew set up all of their instruments in this small control room annex, amplifiers, drums, microphones etc., and began recording “Yer Blues.” Ringo recalls: “And 'Yer Blues' on the 'White Album,' you can't top it. It was the four of us. That is what I'm saying: it was really because the four of us were in a box, a room about eight by eight, with no separation. It was this group that was together; it was like grunge rock of the Sixties, really – grunge blues.”
They recorded fourteen takes of the song, consisting of John on lead guitar and off-mike guide vocal, George also on lead guitar, Ringo on drums, and Paul playing his newly acquired Fender Jazz Bass, this being one of the very few songs he used it on. Between takes eight and nine, John, George and Ringo were inspired to perform an impromptu jam which they liked enough to ask the engineering staff to cut it out of the original tape and add it to another reel entitled “Various Adlibs” for them to listen to privately as a keepsake, this tape never surfacing anywhere since. However, they ended up liking 'take six' the best, and it appears that John punched in a second guitar solo replacing his guitar work in the second half of the solo section of the song, evidenced by still being able to hear George's guitar solo in the background on the released album. Now, since all four tracks of the four-track tape were filled, a couple of tape reductions were made to open up more tracks for overdubs, the second attempt, which they called “take 16,” being the keeper.
A unique editing idea was then presented. Someone, probably John, wanted to edit the beginning of “take 14” of the backing track onto the end of the song. Therefore, the engineering team did a reduction mix of “take 14,” now calling it “take 17,” and then actually spliced the four-track tape to line up the beginning of “take 17” at a strategic spot toward the end of “take 16.” Usually any splice needed in a Beatles recording was done later at the two-track quarter-inch tape stage, so this was a unique maneuver to say the least. Since this edit pieced together two sections of the song which were at different tempos and time-signatures, it is definitely noticeable to the listener. After the edit was completed, it was 5:30 am and time to convene for the day.
The following day, or actually later that day, August 14th, 1968, The Beatles returned to EMI Studio Two at around 7 pm to add overdubs onto “Yer Blues.” John overdubbed his lead vocals with Paul adding a little backing vocals in strategic spots.
Thinking the song was complete, a mono mix was also performed on this day in the EMI Studio Two control room by producer George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith. Four attempts were made at getting the perfect mono mix, them adding a good degree of ADT (“Artificial Double Tracking”) to the guitar solos in the process, the third try being the best. They also added some "slap-back" echo onto John's vocals during the "mother was of the sky" sections of the song, something John used a lot during his solo career years later. The last section of the song was manually faded out on this mono mix since it was actually a performance of the beginning of the song that went on for quite a while. After the group worked at recording yet another new song, John's “What's The New Mary Jane,” a tape copy of “Yer Blues” was made for review by John. The session finally ended at around 4:30 am the following morning.
One final element was deemed necessary to complete “Yer Blues,” however. On August 20th, 1968, John and Ringo entered EMI Studio Three at 5 pm for a quick half-hour session to complete the song. One simple overdub was recorded, Ringo calling out “two, three...” as the song's introduction, Ringo nailing this performance in one try! Once this was recorded, this small section of tape was edited by engineers Ken Scott and John Smith on to the beginning of the mono mix that was made on August 14th.
The stereo mix of the song was done on October 14th, 1968, in the control room of EMI Studio Two by the same engineering team of Martin, Scott and Smith. While applying ADT and "slap-back" echo, this stereo mix is quite similar to the mono with the exception of the introductory “two, three...” being quieter and the fade out being fifteen seconds shorter. A further tape copy of the mono mix of the song was made on October 18th, 1968 by engineer John Smith in the control room of EMI Studio One. Mark Lewisohn's book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” explains the purpose of this tape copy as for “ironing out master tape imperfections” in preparation for the discs to be cut by Harry Moss on that day and the next.
One slight recording of the song deserves to be mentioned here, one apparently done sometime in November of 1968. The Beatles owed their official fan club another Christmas message for 1968 but did not want to be bothered to assemble in EMI Studios to record one. Disc jockey Kenny Everett was sequestered to tape separate messages from each Beatle and assemble them all into a recording that could be pressed and distributed to their fan club members in Britain and the U.S.
George's message was taped from a telephone call to America where he was busy producing the first Jackie Lomax album, and both John and Paul's contributions were taped individually at their respective homes. As for Ringo, the liner notes on the British cover for the disc explains that it was recorded “in the back of Beatle Ringo's diesel-powered removal van Somewhere In Surrey.” If this is true (?!?), in the background of his message you can faintly here playing the finished recording of “Yer Blues,” which Ringo has since stated was one of his favorite songs on the “White Album.”
On December 11th, 1968, John Lennon performed the song for a film called “The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.” This proposed film included performances by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marrianne Faithfull, and a quickly assembled “supergroup” called The Dirty Mac which consisted of John Lennon and Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass and Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience) on drums.
“The first time I performed without The Beatles for years was the 'Rock And Roll Circus,” explained John. “It was great to be on stage with Eric and Keith Richard and a different noise coming out behind me, even though I was still singing and playing the same style. It was just a great experience. I thought, 'Wow! It's fun with other people,' you know. I did 'Yer Blues' and then Yoko came on and did her blues.” Photographer Michael Randolph relates: “John repeatedly fluffed his lines and had to tape a lyric sheet to the microphone. The lyrics in question had actually come from a ripped-up poster taken from the 'White Album.'” And still, he reverted back somewhat to his original third verse, singing "My mother was of the earth, my father was of the sky."
This film was intended to be shown on British television but this never happened. It was eventually released on VHS and Laserdisc as well as on audio CD in 1996 and then on DVD in 2004.
One final recording of “Yer Blues” was on September 13th, 1969, by the hastily formed Plastic Ono Band for a Rock & Roll Revival Concert in Toronto, Ontario. John remembers: “It was late, about 11 o'clock one Friday night, I was in my office at Apple, when we got a phone call from this guy saying, 'Come to Toronto.' They really were inviting us as King and Queen to preside over the concert and not to play. But I didn't hear that part and I said, 'OK, OK. Just give me time to get a band together.' So, I thought, 'Who could I get to come and play with me?' So it all happened like that. We left the next morning.”
The band John scraped together was Eric Clapton on guitar, Klauss Vorrmann on bass, Alan White on drums along with himself and Yoko. “We didn't know what to play because we never played together before. On the airplane we're running through these oldies.” Since Eric was already familiar with “Yer Blues” because of playing it with John the previous year on the “Rock And Roll Circus,” it was an obvious choice. The performance was filmed and recorded, the audio results being released on the album “Live Peace In Toronto 1969,” the video footage being released under different names throughout the years, most notably as “Sweet Toronto.”
Song Structure and Style
At first blush, the structure of "Yer Blues" seems quite complicated but, upon further examination, it actually only consists of nine verses (or aaaaaaaaa), each containing twelve measures (hence, a "twelve-bar-blues"). However, with John Lennon's eccentric sense of timing, various interesting things happen along the way.
After a simple verbal and hi-hat count-in, Ringo rounds out the simulated two-measure introduction with a drum fill to signal John's anticipated first line “Yes, I'm / lonely,” the final word starting off the beginning of the first twelve measure verse. All measures in this verse are in 6/8 time with the exception of measure ten which is in 4/4. This tenth measure comprises a 'Beatles break' of sorts, the drums and bass ringing out along with the remnants of John's vocalized “Woooh” as this measure begins. Basically explained, John and George harmonize an interesting guitar run in the first two beats of this measure, the final two measures being filled with John's line “girl, you know the reason why.”
Instrumentally throughout the first eight measures of this verse we hear Paul plod away with an uncharacteristically simple bass pattern, John playing a triplet-like chord piece during the three and four beats on measures one, three, five and seven (adding another surprising one also in measure eight), George playing single-note phrases in the open spaces left by John's guitar, and Ringo playing spirited drum-work with fills at the end of each even numbered measure. The ninth measure shows both George and John gearing up with guitar phrases in preparation for the above mentioned harmonized guitar run in the tenth measure that follows, this being the signature of the majority of the verses in the song. We also see Paul and Ringo setting up for this guitar phrase through a raising bass run and drum fill respectively, while John sings “If I ain't dead already.” Measures eleven and twelve wind through the expected blues chord changes to set up another verse, George playing a similar single-note guitar passage as heard throughout most of the verse so far while John and Paul lumber through the chord changes and Ringo adds yet another drum fill.
The second verse is nearly an identical copy of the first, albeit with slightly altered lyrics and a quick harmony from Paul on the line “girl, you know the reason why” in the tenth measure being the only differences.
Then comes the third verse which alters the structure significantly from the first two. The first three measures comprise three consecutive 'Beatles breaks' in a row, the time signature changing to a 4/4 swing beat with only the one- and four-beat being played by John (chopping guitar chords) Paul (bass notes) and Ringo (three swing-style snare beats) for the first two measures. During the breaks John sings his startling lyric lines in typical old-style blues fashion with the instrumental accents baiting him along. The third measure contains only the instrumental accent on the downbeat while the fourth measure ushers the song back into the 6/8 feel heard in the majority of the song thus far. This fourth measure consists of John climactic final line “and you know what it's worth” while Ringo flails away with a rapid fire drum fill mostly contained on the snare drum and Paul appropriately raising up on the bass neck for a suitable bass line. This is followed by the remaining eight measures of the verse being identical in scope to the first two, John excitedly adding some extra triplet-like guitar chops throughout and Paul reprising his harmony in measure ten.
The fourth verse is a virtual repeat of the third except for the different set of lyrics in the first four measures. Interestingly, you can easily hear John's guide vocal underneath his later recorded lead vocals during the first four measures, most notably on the lines “feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's 'Mr. Jones.'” The fifth verse sounds like it will also repeat the pattern of the previous two verses but, with a very audible vocal coaxing from John during the rhythm track in the first three measures, we are treated to a continuation of the 4/4 swing beat throughout the rest of the verse with Ringo's snare and Paul's bass leading the way in the fourth measure. Full instrumentation ensues thereafter, Ringo loudly riding on his cymbal and John bashing away on rhythm guitar while George timidly fumbles through some ad-lib lead guitar phrases. John also finishes out his usual lyrics, screamed out somewhat awkwardly because of the time signature change.
Two concurrent instrumental verses follow, numbered six and seven, the first being highlighted by John's interesting syncopated guitar solo which was treated to a healthy dose of ADT during the mixing stage. The second of these verses, which would be the seventh, feature an overdubbed guitar solo (presumably also by John) also drenched with ADT while a lumbering ad-lib solo from George from the rhythm track is heard in the background. Just after the downbeat of the eleventh measure, however, the above mentioned startling edit to the 'take 14” rhythm track occurs, coming in directly at the start of Ringo's introductory drum fill which is also so drenched in ADT it sound almost as if it has been double-tracked. Two full instrumental verses from this take are heard here in the mono mix (faded out during the fifth measure in the stereo mix) with John's subtle guide vocal heard quite clearly throughout.
The listener can almost cut Lennon's enthusiasm as heard in the recording of this track with a knife. The strategic placements of his rhythmic guitar chops in the earlier verses are erratically multiplied in later verses just by sheer adrenaline, while his guitar solos (the first one anyway, as demonstrated in the “Rock And Roll Circus” film) show he had a definite statement to make with this song, one that apparently came across as intended. George and Paul played more of a perfunctory role here, but Ringo sure rose to the occasion, thrashing his heart out and feeling very much a part of the band that he ended up temporarily quitting a little over a week later.
November 25th, 1968, was the U.S. release date for their double-album entitled "The Beatles," aka the "White Album." "Yer Blues worked nicely in continuing the louder rock 'n' roll vibe set by "Birthday" at the beginning of side three of the album. "The "White 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 remastered CD on September 9th, 2009. The mono vinyl set didn't hit American shores until September 9th, 2014.
"The Beatles Sixth Christmas Record," as mentioned above, was sent to American members of their fan club sometime in late 1968, Ringo's message including a faintly heard "Yer Blues" in the background. Sometime in the spring of 1971, American Beatles fans were shipped a full album entitled "The Beatles' Christmas Album" on Apple Records, this disc containing all seven of the messages from the previous years, including the 1968 message with "Yer Blues" quietly heard in the background.
The first time the mono version of the “White Album” was available in the U.S., however, was on the CD box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which became available on September 9th, 2009, the longer version of “Yer Blues” being heard by American audiences for the first time.
On December 12th, 1969, not long after The Beatles released their “Abbey Road” album, John Lennon released “Live Peace In Toronto 1969” by The Plastic Ono Band. As described above, this release included their entire performance at the Rock & Roll Revival Concert in Toronto on September 13th of that year, “Yer Blues” being among the songs performed. This was the first ever released live album by any member of The Beatles. The album was received quite well by Beatles fans, reaching #10 on the Billboard album charts with John receiving a gold record of which he said in 1980, “I still have it somewhere.”
On October 14th, 1996, the album “Rock And Roll Circus” was finally released to the general public which featured, as also described above, John with his quickly assembled make-shift band The Dirty Mac playing “Yer Blues.” It only reached #92 on the U.S. album charts, many Beatles fans probably not even knowing of its availability, which is a shame since the performance and recording is excellent.
With their touring days long over, The Beatles never performed “Yer Blues” live. As outlined above, the only two John Lennon performances of the song was on December 11th, 1968 for the program “Rock And Roll Circus” and on September 13th, 1969 for the Rock & Roll Revival Concert in Toronto.
As it turned out, John Lennon's "Yer Blues" comes across as half parody and half sincerity; a send-up of the British Blues boom of the late 60's while, on the other hand, John using this medium to express some of his current deep inner turnoil.
The results cannot be described as sonically excellent, given Lennon's eccentric whim of wanting to record it in the least acoustical environment imaginable. However, the live energy through comradery is easily felt by the listener, both John and Ringo later expressing their favorability of the track; Ringo through interviews and John through taking it upon himself to perform the song live. In fact, it's one of only four Lennon/McCartney Beatles songs he ever performed live in his solo career (the others being “Come Together” in 1972 and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and “I Saw Her Standing There” with Elton John in 1974). “Yer Blues” was obviously viewed by Lennon as something special, but he never specifically tried to tackle straight-forward blues again in his lifetime, nor did he need to. Been there, done that!
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
- Song Written: March, 1968
- Song Recorded: August 13, 14 and 20, 1968
- First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
- First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles”
- US Single Release: n/a
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles”
- Length: 4:16 (mono), 4:01 (stereo)
- Key: E major
- Producer: George Martin
- Engineers: Ken Scott, John Smith
Instrumentation (most likely):
- John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar (1965 Epiphone ES-230TD Casino)
- Paul McCartney - Bass (1966 Fender Jazz Bass), backing vocals
- George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1957 Gibson Les Paul Standard)
- Ringo Starr - Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), vocals (counting intro)
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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