March 20, 2016

Old Brown Shoe

"Old Brown Shoe" provides as fine an example you'll find this side of "Abbey Road" of George Harrison (Scouse of Distinction) doing his thing while also holding his own. And yet, it retains a B-side kind of relative obscurity that is as unfortunate as it is undeserved. - Alan Pollack

The Beatles didn't just properly execute the Supergroup Implosion.  As in all things, they did it in their own brilliant, high-risk style, in full view of a bemused world, with each member at various times doing their own version of "I got this:  here, hold my beer..."

As the engine flamed out and the wings fell off, various unusual things happened.  Lennon wrote a song called "The Ballad of John and Yoko", which McCartney immediately cut with him, omitting the participation of 2nd-tier band member George Harrison (on vacation somewhere) and 3rd-tier band member Ringo Starr (filming a move).  Supposedly there's a session tape where this happens (source):
Lennon (on guitar): "Go a bit faster, Ringo!"
McCartney (on drums): "OK, George!" 
Ha ha, and they put it out as a single, and boom, more money.  It went to #1 in the UK, #8 in the U.S. despite saying "Christ", and was banned in Spain for mentioning Gibraltar.  Just another day at the office for two guys who'd gotten used to getting paid very very well for recording, well, almost anything.

What was kind of getting lost here was the advancement of Harrison as a songwriter and arranger.  He owned the White Album with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Savoy Truffle", which even today compare favorably with "Why Don't We Do It the Road", "Martha My Dear", and other assorted crap.  "Savoy Truffle" showed that Harrison could put together a complicated but coherent musical machine, take it off, and land it, all without mentioning the Indian subcontinent.  Musicians enjoy playing it as much as audiences enjoy hearing it (here's the Ella Fitzgerald version).

The biggest problem with "Savoy Truffle", as with many Beatles songs after 1966, is what the fuck is it about?  The band had gotten to the point where their musical ideas had far outrun their ability to put coherent lyrics in.  Despite their fame, money, and spiritual and political pretensions, they really had no ideas or vision to sell, except for whatever was already in the air.

Only Harrison was actually honest about this, and "Old Brown Shoe" - the B-side of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" - can be read as a protest against the excessive certainty that plagued so many late Beatles songs (Todd Rundgren comment here).  I have no idea what's going on, Harrison says, but maybe a pretty girl would help:

I want a love that's right but right is only half of what's wrong 
I want a short haired girl who sometimes wears it twice as long 
Now I'm stepping out of this old brown shoe, baby, I'm in love with you 
I'm so glad you came here, it won't be the same now, I'm telling you 

You know you pick me up from where some try to drag me down 
And when I see your smile replace every thoughtless frown 
Got me escaping from this zoo, baby, I'm in love with you 
I'm so glad you came here, it won't be the same now when I'm with you

Here is Harrison working out the song with McCartney and Ringo:

Here's Harrison doing it in 1992 (24 years ago, already?):

Top prize for a modern era performance goes to Gary Brooker, who gets through the song with the aid of various journeymen:

A couple of additional thoughts:
  • Harrison plays bass on the record ("nice job Paul!"), and like a fucking madman.  This gentleman illustrates nicely.  When asked about it Harrison said he just played the bass like a guitar.
  • This fellow notes that "I've seen fights break out over who gets to play the [guitar] solo..."  
  • Conan O'Brien enjoys singing it.

By the time the Beatles wrapped up Abbey Road, Lennon was acknowledging that Harrison's "Something" was the best song on the album.  It was good of him to notice, but Harrison had been doing the best work in the band for a while.


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