August 31, 2013

Another Beatles song the world forgets

In the many children's books enumerating large things in the world, the ego of Paul McCartney is unaccountably omitted.  It is not large, it makes Asia look preposterously undersized.  To paraphrase Drew Carey, McCartney's ego is so big it has its own ego, it's so big Spielberg takes its calls.

I habitually mock McCartney for his insecurity and self-importance (because I am immune to those things, apparently), but there are times when one must admit he has a case.  For example, "I'm Down" is a great Beatles song, and was obviously one the band enjoyed playing, as in their finale at Shea.  It was the B-side to the "Help" single...and, yet, it didn't make the album, or the 62-66 anthology we grew up with.  McCartney said they buried it so everyone would focus on "Help", and he might have been right.

I can't help feeling that another song omitted from that anthology - "She's a Woman" (1964) - has suffered from similar, if less severe, neglect. It is one of McCartney's finest early songwriting efforts, and, although a massive debt to Little Richard is evident, it is also one of his very best vocal performances.

It was a major musical departure for the band as well.  The estimable Alan Pollack reports:
This song would be just about the Beatles' most blues-like number to date on compositional grounds, as well as those of performance style. The tune and the chord choices are bluesy in flavor, and the instrumental break and outro sections even sport a true-blue twelve-bar form. Even the verses turn out to be in a subtly disguised expanded variation on the standard twelve-bar framework.
This is a problem.  Don't get me wrong, I like the blues.  But most blues songs - even good ones - are, to modern ears, boring.  Fortunately, "She's a Woman" is not boring. The form may be blues, but this is a commercial popular song, and it is optimized for teenage attention spans.  McCartney's tripping, playful lyrics never allow us to settle down and space out.

Sung in Little Richard's register, there's also the visceral thrill of waiting to see if the man's larynx will explode. Like "The Star Spangled Banner", most performers automatically excluded from performing the song on athletic grounds. Those who can sing it with some accuracy can get away with murder on all other aspects, up to and including playing it on a ukelele in a bar.

Hard to say where to start with song - the version I grew up with was great, but had a bunch of added reverb.  That worked, in my opinion, but Londoners heard (2:26 here) a more austere, blues-authentic version.  Here is how it sounded in live performance at the BBC in 1965 - a little less mechanical than the studio version, it even swings a little (and dig that pink record).  This stereo remaster, which sounds good to me but is reviled by some, further complicates things.  There's a good mono remaster here.

"She's a Woman" was the B side of "I Feel Fine", and Master Pollack sees a strong musical connection between the two:
[T]here may have been times when John and Paul would, if not quite compositionally compete with each other in any explicit, technical way, subliminally work out some similar musical problem in parallel with each other; the result of which might be two very different songs which, nonetheless, betray a similar lyrical thesis or technical structure at a level below the surface... 
I suggest we have this phenomenon here between "I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman". In this case, I am particularly struck by the euphoric subtext of the words, the stylized handling of the blues, and especially the V -» IV -» I intro in which the ensemble doesn't quite start until the I chord.
I was hand-waving and hooting at first, but he does have a point.  These two characters discover that you can add all sorts of "I Feel Fine"-like guitar to "She's a Woman" and get away with it.  Well, almost.

One of the nicest aspects of reviewing performances of "She's a Woman" is how briskly the auditions go.  Although the notes and rhythm are not complicated, it's not an easy song to play well, or even start well.  In the first ten seconds the performer(s) must:  execute the guitar intro, transition in the other instruments, and get the vocal ("my love don't give me presents...") off on the right foot.  Most fail in one of more of these tasks, and can be dismissed without too much investment in time.

In addition, we exclude from consideration the following:
  • Bass covers, guitar covers, karaoke covers, etc.
  • Garbage like this.
  • Attempts to play it exactly like the Beatles, but with a lesser vocalist (honorable mention here, however, to the The Substitutes of Melbourne Australia).
  • Any performance by Paul McCartney between 1970 and 2010 (dude, what were you thinking?
  • There are some fun things going on in Japan,
  • This one flunks for the cartoonish vocal, but further demerits for bad dancing.
A successful cover requires a different take on the song, talent, and the musical insight to discover something new and special in the music.  Ideally some artistic expression will also be involved.  Here are a few examples to consider:
  • Chet Atkins plays the country card, which works well, but discards the bluesy urgency of the original, which I personally find essential.  I'm not saying it's bad - Chet Atkins never played anything bad.  (Listens again.)  It's not bad at all.  It's good.  It's just...
  • By contrast, I don't care for the well-regarded Jeff Beck version at all.  It's a bit too Spinal Tap-ish for me, although if you like listening to long, self-indulgent, semi-random guitar solos, give it a try.
  • This talented fellow on Youtube does a disarming, beautiful, and even slightly soulful version on his Gretsch...very articulated but retaining some of the underlying rhythmic structure.
  • If you like jazz (I'm not judging), Joe Derenzo's interpretation is ok - similar in approach to some of Ramsey Lewis' covers - and I found myself alternately wishing I knew who was playing piano and hoping the saxophone player would go away.  Is there a take without the sax?  Hello?
  • Jose Feliciano, as usual, makes it his own.  Think I'll play it again.  (Listens again.)  Man, that's good.  Dude changes the second word of the song and gets away with it.  Nice flute, too, back when that sort of thing was still allowed.
My favorite, though, is the Deadhead version - wasn't this on Shakedown Street? - by Chicago jam legends Mister Blotto.  I hadn't thought you could do the song without that clockwork rhythm guitar, but they drop it after the intro and get everything else right:  a strong vocal performance, good guitar work, and fine playing in the rhythm section.  It goes on the playlist.


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