Archives for posts with tag: Paul McCartney

StepAfter all those years of prime time telly, Cilla Black is a somewhat unfashionable figure today – but look back at her music catalogue of the 1960s and 1970s and a lot of it is still remarkably fresh and interesting. The best of all for me is the stripped back demo version of “Step Inside Love” with composer Paul McCartney accompanying on guitar (and contributing the occasional vocal during the guitar break).  It was recorded in Chappell Studios (by then located at 52 Maddox Street, London) on November 21 1967, the same venue where the Beatles had recorded “Your Mother Should Know” three months before, and also where McCartney joined Chris Barber and his Band for the recording of “Cat Call” in July – another of the songs he “gave away”.

The take shows that Cilla doesn’t need big orchestral backing to support her, and nor does she need the power of her upper register to get across the emotion of the song – in fact when the single version came out it had been transposed up a full fourth (from D to G) for that reason. The deeper register of the demo – it’s really as deep as her voice will go – makes for a much mellower atmosphere.  All the elements used in the single are also in the demo.  McCartney told Barry Miles later on: “I quite like the song, it’s very cabaret. It was just a welcoming song for Cilla”.  And that’s the point – it was written specifically to open her 1968 TV series, Cilla, though in this demo version it retains a more personal intimacy.

That cabaret feel comes from the use of bossa nova rhythm, something that’s more evident in the Beatles’ own demo, made a year later using exaggerated percussion (not one of their finest moments). The most distinct harmonic aspect of the song is the chromatic slide down to the next full tone after “let me find you a place” (G, Gb to F in the example above, which has been transposed to C major), repeated after the following phrase down another tone (F, E, Eb), and echoed in the descending motto of the chorus:  ”Step-In-Side-Love”. Hard to notate in guitar chord symbols but entirely natural to play.

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joemeekLonnie Donnegan’s skiffle cover of Rock Island Line, recorded with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in July 1954, is often credited as the cornerstone of the boom in UK blues and rock that emerged in the 1960s. That interest was also marked by Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock reaching the UK charts in January 1955, four months before it made the charts in the US. But a year later came a third landmark, which like Rock Island Line came from the jazz world. Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues was recorded in London on April 20, 1956 at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park. After the recording, Lyttleton promptly went on holiday and left the mixing of the record to producer Denis Preston – who in turn left the work to his engineer, Joe Meek (shown above at the Lansdowne Studio mixing desk).

Meek – who went on to become a seminal producer of pop records in the 1960s – boosted up the bottom end of the distinctive piano riff played by Johnny Parker, and also pushed Stan Greig’s brushes right up in the mix. Lyttleton says he would have stopped the recording going out if he’d heard a test pressing, but by the time he got back from his holiday it was number 19 in the charts, and stayed there for six weeks – the first British jazz record to reach the Top Twenty – so he kept his mouth shut.

The immediate thing that strikes you on listening to the piece today is the resemblance of the piano riff to Paul McCartney’s playing on Lady Madonna. McCartney always cited Fats Domino as his main influence for the song. But Bad Penny Blues came out on the Beatles’ Parlophone label, where George Martin was the A&R man at the time. And British jazzers Ronnie Scott and Harry Klein were also brought in to play saxophone on Lady Madonna.

buckOn the plane over to San Francisco on Saturday (I’m over for a week on a business trip), I had the chance to watch the new documentary Sound City, about the Sound City recording studios in Los Angeles. The film was made by drummer Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) and is excellent throughout. But one part was particularly interesting for me. It focused on the recording of Buckingham Nicks, the album that led to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, starting with Fleetwood Mac (1975) and then Rumours (1977). It’s a great record and like a blueprint for the subsequent Fleetwood Mac releases, though little heard today because for some reason it never made it onto CD. I have an old vinyl copy but can’t play it any more.

A standout track for me is the instrumental “Stephanie”, composed and played by Buckingham – whose distinctive guitar style pervades all the tracks. Buckingham uses his thumb to pick out the bass and lower parts (like the left hand for a pianist) while using the rest of his fingers for patterns, arpeggios and the melody on the upper strings in a highly independent way. And to make this work more effectively he also changes the typical guitar tuning – something he apparently tried to keep secret in his early days so that other guitarists wouldn’t copy him. It sounds so full it’s hard to believe there’s just one player or no overdubs – except for the electric guitar melodies on the record, but these aren’t really needed, this is essentially a solo piece.

“Stephanie” reminds me of the folk-influenced finger-picking guitar style Paul McCartney used on “Blackbird” taken up a few notches, and it’s evident again on the Rumours track “Never Going Back Again”. Although the original is still hard to find, Buckingham has been playing the piece live recently and there are performances available on YouTube. But if you are interested in how it is played, take a look at this fascinating tutorial by Sara Carter. The prospect of a cover version on YouTube is typically something to avoid at all costs, but not in this case – she absolutely nails it here.

ImageThe Beatles played an important part in my musical education – not directly, at the time when they were releasing records (I was only dimly aware of this at the time), but in the early 1970s, when I first began exploring the back catalogue seriously and sought out the sheet music to try and work out what was going on.  The first music I bought was hopelessly simplified – I remember in particular that the rhythmical irregularities of “Blackbird” had been ironed out completely, rendering it impossible to play because it was so wrong. Then I discovered the “50 Hit Songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney” series, where the music was unusually detailed for sheet music of the time.

“Martha My Dear” (from The White Album) was one of the first pieces I wanted to look at. That long piano-only introduction, said by most commentators to be in “music hall” style, for instance – what was that magnificently scrunchy chord in the eighth bar?  (Answer: Ab with major seventh and ninth, not correct in the example from Wikipedia, shown above). Where do the bar lines fall? (Answer: still open to question, various editions do it differently, once again like the example above. To me, the simplest solution is to keep it in 2/4 except for the second bar in 3/2. But however accounted for, those extra beats at the start are enough to keep everything else out of kilter).

There are other excellent things about this song as well. Look at how the more conventional but soaring bridge passage (at “Hold your head up, you silly girl” leads into an “extended bridge” (on the words “Take a good look around you”), which at its end re-introduces the four-square marching rhythm of the introduction (on the words “for each other”) in advance of the verse itself returning. And everything is subtly re-enforced by George Martin’s chamber ensemble arrangement, for eight string players and seven brass players (including trumpets, French horn, flugelhorn, trombone and tuba), in addition to McCartney’s vocals, piano, guitar, bass and drums – no other Beatles were involved. I’m not saying this is the greatest Beatles song ever, it’s just that its sheer uniqueness of style and musical inventiveness stand out for me and make me want to listen again and again.