1. Yer Blues
I’ve been meaning to
complain write about this for a while, because there are a couple of bugbears surrounding this song in particular that I’ve been meaning to get off my chest.
First of all, what is it called? I think of all the jokes the Beatles ever told, this one fell as flat as a cartoon cat run over by a steamroller. I think this is largely because The Beatles belong to their American fans in a way they never did to the British. British fans have always had to contend with peer pressure, the fickle and arbitrary whims of the music press, and the disapproving curtain twitching of the Daily Mail etc. American fans, with at best a loose understanding of British regional accents, really stood no chance at understanding how to say “Yer Blues” out loud.
Sadly, over time, it seems that most British fans (and youthful podcasters) have also lost the ability to pronounce the song.
The song was originally intended as a snipe at the British Blues Boom, exemplified by the likes of the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, who released their debut album in February 1968. The Beatles were always hip to what was going on, and both they and the Stones responded in their own way to This Kind of Thing. The Stones released Beggar’s Banquet in December 1968, which was their Back to Basics Album. The Beatles, as they so often did, turned to pastiche and satire. Lennon’s song might have been called ‘Yer Actual Blues’’, as in, this is your actual, authentic blues, this is.
In other words, you’re supposed to be saying ‘Yer Blues’ in an iambic rhythm, with an unstressed, cockney ‘yer’ (or yuh) followed by a stressed, earnest, ‘blues’, like a bloke in a pub.
The second issue surrounding this song is that it turned almost instantly from satire to sincerity. Lennon, in his pain and insecurity at the time and in the early 70s, used this song as a crutch, pulling it out for those few live appearances he made (the Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus in December ’68 and Toronto in September 1969), with yer actual Eric Clapton on guitar. And in his interviews, he characterised this (and the earlier ‘Help!’ as serious manifestations of his pain).
2. The rock ’n’ rolling argument
‘Yer Blues’ fits into the spirit of the times, and an ongoing conversation/debate within the pages of the music press about authenticity in music. This authenticity debate goes on an on, and is something I wrote about in connection with country music in particular way back in 2012. The Beatles gave up touring in 1966 at least in part because they knew they weren’t able to reproduce their records successfully in a live setting (see below for more on this). They probably needed some time out, to allow the technology of sound reinforcement to catch up with them, but the existence of The Analogues in the 21st Century (not to mention McCartney and Starr’s various live outings) shows that you can reproduce this stuff live.
But the point was, in 1968 and 1969 especially, that the Beatles were being dinged for making records that ‘they couldn’t do live’. Sgt Pepper is all very well, but etc. etc.. And you might have spent five months recording this White Album thing, but how much of it could you perform live? This one is more of a moot point, because it’s already clear that quite a lot of The Beatles is meant to be stripped back to a kind of basics. And into this context, you can fit the ‘live’ videos released for both ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ – both designed to give the lie to the notion that the Beatles could no longer hack it as live performers.
A lot of the debate was surrounding the ‘authentic’ British Blues Boom bands, including the likes of Led Zeppelin, who were formed in 1968, which is Year Zero for the ‘But could you do it live?’ debate.
So there’s this three-way debate going on between the Beatles, the Stones, and the Blues Boom. The Stones’ response to The Beatles wasn’t to try to ape it, like they tried to ape Sgt Pepper, but to get back to what they originally were: a blues band.
And how did The Beatles respond? Their own back-to-basics project, Get Back, and the supposed live show they were going to put on. But it all falls apart, because George didn’t want to play live under any circumstances, and John had completely lost faith/interest in their ability to do it. It’s so telling that he fell back onto the rock and roll music they were playing back in Hamburg, both during these sessions and the Live Peace in Toronto concert. He knows he can do this, he doesn’t want to do moptop Beatles music, and he has no conviction that can manage the new stuff live.
Of course, they could: the rooftop concert, brief as it was, showed that they could.
Meanwhile, Mick Jagger is promoting Beggar’s Banquet and the Stones leaning into live performance by claiming that the Stones were always a better live band. And, even in 1970, Lennon is still responding to what Mick says in his interviews, arguing that the Beatles were a great live band… back in Hamburg.
And poor old Paul is trying to persuade the others that they could get back on the road, if only to prove to themselves that they could still do it. The latest episode of the One Sweet Dream podcast’s Break-Up Series is excellent on this. In January 1969, this is what Paul wants to do: answer their critics by getting back on the stage. In September 1969, it’s still his main suggestion, to which Lennon responds that Paul is ‘daft’, and the rest is history.
And when Paul takes Wings out on tour in 1972, he does exactly what he wanted to do with The Beatles. And while the music press was horrible about him and this tour at the time, he was right, wasn’t he? And as I’ve said before, the tragedy of Lennon’s early death is that he never got to grow up enough to do ‘Baby’s in Black’ live again.
If you look on YouTube, you’ll easily find the colour film of The Beatles playing the Budokan arena in 1966. And you’ll see the reasons (beyond death threats and chaos) why they stopped touring that year, along with some quite shameful behaviour from members of the band who knew they were bad (by their high standards) and wanted to hide the fact. You see, while they often said in interviews that people couldn’t hear them play, the problem in 1966 was that they could.
By 1966, the screaming had died down. It’s a sad fact that a lot of the 1966 shows didn’t sell out. So, actually, with a decent sound system, The Beatles could be heard. In fact, the sound quality of this concert isn’t too bad. But there are a number of problems.
The microphones are shit. Ironically, 1966 was the year that Shure first produced the SM58. The similar SM57 came in 1965. So if The Beatles had held on, things would have quickly improved in that department. Classics like the Sennheiser MD441 wouldn’t be along until the early 70s, but by the time Zeppelin are touring in ’69, live sound is much better.
But worse than the microphones being shit, they’re loose, they’re at the wrong height, they swing around and won’t stay pointed in the same direction. George has to keep pulling it back when he’s trying to sing into the same mic as Paul. Even when Paul is singing on his own, his mic keeps rotating away from him. It’s extraordinary: for want of some gaffer tape, the band was lost.
Watch that show and you’ll notice that, um, when Paul is doing a number, they’re pretty damn good. His vocals on ‘I’m Down’ and ‘She’s a Woman’ and even ‘Yesterday’ are fine. And that whole band performance of ‘Yesterday’ is all right, really. On the other hand, George’s voice sounds faint, and their attempts to harmonise on ‘If I Needed Someone’ are ropy. Lennon makes a fair fist of ‘Nowhere Man’, and you can blame poor sound for most of what makes it a bit cringeworthy. ‘Paperback Writer’ is pretty terrible.
And here’s the thing: whenever it starts getting a bit limp or loose, on ‘Paperback Writer’ for example, both Lennon and Harrison try to get the audience to scream to cover up how poor they sound. They’ll just suddenly wave and gurn to try to generate enough noise to hide their failings. Embarrassing really.
But it was clearly the memories of this that were haunting George and John in 1969 when they baulked at getting back on the road. Because there was no way that the 28-9 year old John Lennon, with his beard and his heroin and his avant-garde sensibilities, was going to go on stage and perform ‘Eight Days a Week’ or ‘Baby’s in Black’, or even ‘Nowhere Man.’
And as I said above, that’s a real tragedy. Because the joy Paul and Ringo have brought to the world by doing songs from all eras of their career live is really quite incredible.
Even ‘Yer Blues’, John, would have brought the house down in 1999.