Monday, June 04, 2007

“Getting Better” / The Beatles
In the shifting search for Truth that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Getting Better” is a ray of hope. The narrator (Paul’s singing) buoyantly declares he’s happy now, since “you’ve been mine.” I naturally assume he’s talking about a girlfriend – didn’t Ringo just tell us we all need someone to love? But if it is a girl, Paul never bothers to tell us a thing about her. (It’s possible the “you” that changed his life could be drugs, or maybe wealth and success – both sure transformed the Beatles’ lives.) It doesn’t really matter, because the song is really all about him. It’s complete navel-gazing – either that or charming self-expression, take your pick.

Each verse is a snapshot of him at some disagreeable stage of his life. “I used to get mad at my school,” “Me used to be angry young man,” and, most disturbing of all, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her / And kept her apart from the things that she loved.” (Flashback to an earlier song, this one by John Lennon: “You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man, that’s the end-a, little girl.”) There’s plenty of self-knowledge here, but he’s not going to beat himself up; he’s on the right path, and that’s good enough for now. “It’s getting better / A little better all the time,” he says gamely; “I’m doing the best that I can.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, man.

Set to a different tune, with a different arrangement, these lyrics might have been repellent – but instead, McCartney’s pulled off a positive, bright-hearted track I can’t help but love. I think it’s because of that jazzy rhythm, that skip in his step that is second-nature for a bassist like Paul (think “Got To Get You Into My Life”). Even though the melody in the verse keeps slip-sliding down to murkier chords, that chorus perks right back up.

This is not a track built on guitar virtuosity; every instrument feeds into the percussive bounce. Those clanging repeated guitar chords, later picked up by an electric piano, pulse and vibrate like a radio signal; cymbals and handclaps fill in for drums most of the time. There’s no horn section, but the back-up vocals play just like a pack of horns -- listen to their opening fanfare: “It’s getting better all the ti-i-ime.” The backing vocals are one of my favorite things about this song. “I used to get mad at my school / [Now I can’t complain] / The teachers who taught me weren’t cool / [Now I can’t complain] / You’re holding me down [ah-ah] / Turning me round [oh] / Filling me up with your rules [ooh].” Best of all: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better [better] / A little better all the time [It can’t get no worse]”. It’s a clever way to keep up the brass-band motif while still rocking out.

I know some people hate McCartney’s toe-tapping cheeriness -- but why wouldn’t Paul McCartney have an optimistic view of life? Anytime he ever wanted anything, all he had to do was bat those eyelashes and he’d get his way. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a nasty side as well; this song is full of it. But the ultimate message? Love sees all, knows all, and changes everything. Dig it.


G12 said...

This track and Fixing A Hole back-toback is the fatal error of Peppers. It's not great Beatles, it's not even ever great. It's avergae, and for such an accaimed album, so much is average when you strip it down.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful insight on the comparison of the background vocals mimicking a horn section. You're right, it's like imaging "Got To Get You Into My Life" without horns? I totally see that. And I love this record!
I can't wait to hear your take on "She's Leaving Home". For some reason, as a young lad, that song hit me pretty hard!


Holly A Hughes said...

G12, this used to be my least favorite stretch of the album (back in the days when skipping tracks requiring lifting the needle, though, so I never bothered). Now these are two of my favorite tracks. Maybe it's because they ahven't been overplayied, but I think they've aged better than other tracks. I dig the rhythmic complexity and they're great to sing along to. Not a bit of schmaltz on either of them, either.

Julie said...

I think, as you said, that only someone as sunny as Paul could have gotten away with it. And who's to complain. It's a light, enjoyable song.