Sunday, January 24, 2016

Can You Take Me Back: A look at an intriguing Beatles song snippet

Can you take him back where he came from?: Paul McCartney in 1968.

In September 1968, Paul McCartney could not have gone back where he came from even if he had wanted to. For one thing, his band, The Beatles, was in the middle of the recording sessions for what would turn out to be the double-LP juggernaut known popularly as The White Album. But something even bigger, or at least affecting a greater number of people in an immediate way, was happening in England at the time.  The country was in the midst of torrential rains that made travel into and out of London difficult to impossible. The south of England, where the members of The Beatles were at the time, was especially hard hit. London was temporarily isolated by rainwater: an island within an island. Good old Liverpool might as well have been ten million miles away: The roads and rails leading out of London were briefly closed in mid-September of '68. Though they claimed no lives, the dismal rains of that month have garnered the title of "The Great Flood of 1968."

An example of the 1968 flooding in England.
The dreariness of English weather seeps into the Beatles' catalog now and again. They had a whole song called "Rain," after all. (Sample lyrics: "When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead when the rain comes.") On Sgt. Pepper, recorded just the previous year, Paul sang of "fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering." And John's "I Am the Walrus" wittily devotes its bridge to the gloomy British climate: "Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun. If the sun don't come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain." From other songs, like "Good Day Sunshine" and "Here Comes the Sun," one gets the sense that the Fabs were especially grateful for every precious ray of sunlight they could get in England.

The historical records indicate that the Great Flood was peaking on September 16, 1968, a Monday, when Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr convened at Abbey Road's famed Studio Two for an after-hours White Album session. George's absence that day has gone unexplained, but the three assembled musicians recorded 67 takes of a then-new McCartney composition called "I Will." Why this simple, sparsely-arranged pop tune should have required so many takes remains something of a mystery, but Paul was still fiddling with the lyrics well into the night. Actually, the session didn't even start until 7:00pm. It concluded at 3:00am. So it was a typical workingman's eight-hour day; it was just a weird eight hours. This being his own song, Paul naturally handled lead vocals as well as the acoustic guitar parts and some "vocal bass." John and Ringo split the percussion duties: the latter on bongos, the former on maracas and cymbals. Some Beatle discographies imply that this was a Paul-only, completely solo recording, but this does not appear to have been the case. At the tail end of the session, John got the idea to briefly parody "The Fool on the Hill" by overdubbing a few seconds of a recorder (probably played by Paul) onto his self-referential "Glass Onion." Otherwise, "I Will" was the only real accomplishment of the evening.

It was Paul's nature to improvise little song snippets between takes, and this particular session yielded several such examples. "Los Paranoias" was a staple of Beatle bootlegs before being permanently enshrined on Anthology 3. Paul also took a stab at something called "The Way You Look Tonight," a slight but sweet variation on the Jerome Kern standard, as filtered through "I Will." It can be descried as a crossbreeding of those two songs. Nice stuff, really. But the real keeper of the night was an off-the-cuff number called "Can You Take Me Back?" The entire improvisation, in its uncut form, runs two minutes. About 30 seconds near the end were eventually excerpted on The White Album, linking "Cry Baby Cry" with "Revolution 9." The full recording is worth your time, though.

The complete recording demonstrates that John and Ringo were obviously and audibly present for the session, with John even shouting out a lyrical prompt ("Are you happy here, honey?") to Paul, who runs with it. There even emerges something of a vague narrative: A woman, having been unhappily transplanted from her birthplace to a new location, is pleading with her husband or lover to take her back home. The song seems to have its roots in American blues music. The characters in the song could be migrant workers who moved out West during the Great Depression to escape the dust storms that ravaged the plains in the 1930s, only to find California just as inhospitable to newcomers. Paul plays both the man and the woman, but the latter dominates, thus explaining Paul's high-pitched voice in the song. But there is no indication that her wish will come true; she seems to be hopelessly stranded in this purgatory or limbo. Her main question goes unanswered.

Musically, the song reminds me a lot of a Depression-era blues number called "Can I Do It For You?" by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. It, too, is structured as a dialogue between a plaintive man and an inconsolable woman.

The Memphis Minnie recording dates back to 1930, but it was revived, revised, and retitled in 1965 as "Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)" by Donovan, a countryman of The Beatles. "Hey Gyp" was first released as a B-side but was promoted to the status of A-side the very next year. Another group of English rockers, Eric Burdon and the Animals, covered "Hey Gyp" in 1966. So Paul McCartney would definitely have been aware of the song in some form. Who knows? He may have heard the original recording. It should be noted that Britain was in the grip of a full-on blues revival in the mid-to-late-1960s. The phenomenon of white Englishmen copying African-American music became so prevalent by 1968 that The Bonzo Dog Band felt compelled to record a satirical song called "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?" in spiteful response. The de facto face of the British blues scene, Eric Clapton, would contribute a guitar solo to another White Album track, George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," while John's "Yer Blues" is either his contribution to or his parody of the Brit blues subgenre. "Can You Take Me Back?" is less obvious or overt than that. The British blues scene was dominated by strident electric guitars, while Paul's song is humble and acoustic, hearkening back to the lean, spare blues sound of the 1930s, as heard on the recordings of Skip James, Memphis Minnie, and others.

Another factor setting Paul's song apart is that it is based on the pentatonic or five-tone scale. You can play the melody just using the black keys of a piano keyboard. Ebony and ebony living together in perfect harmony. For reasons I can never quite explain, five-tone songs have a mysterious, ineffable quality to them. What is it about those five wonderful notes that makes them sound so good together? Perhaps a musicologist can reduce it down to an equation. In any event, the result is haunting and haunted, memorable enough to have been sampled by Danger Mouse on his remix treatment of Jay-Z's "My 1st Song" from 2004's The Grey Album.

"Can You Take Me Back?" is one of those great little accidents in The Beatles' catalog, a track so modest and brief it does not even warrant being billed as a full-fledged song on the LP sleeve, yet as memorable as any of the full-length compositions surrounding it. I can remember first hearing The White Album via a third-generation dubbed cassette and thinking that I was hearing something secretive and magical in those 28 seconds of music, as if Paul McCartney had hidden this little song snippet deep within the recesses of the album for me to find. Listening to it now, I imagine The Beatles slogging away through another endless recording session, trying to keep the creative juices flowing as the rain outside refuses to yield. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever. Never seeing no one nice again. Can you take me back, my honey, can you take me back? Back to where I once belonged?