“Lovely Rita” / The Beatles
After the sweet devotion of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” time for a little bawdiness, with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. “Lovely Rita” is a happy-go-lucky song about a guy trying to pick up a cute traffic officer – just another McCartney novel-in-song. But as usual, plenty of unsettling things lie under that deceptively simple surface.
The intro has a psychedelic texture, like “Fixing A Hole” – that dreamy sliding “ah-ahhh-aahh” (listen for it again on “A Day In the Life”) followed by woozy double-tracked backing vocals chanting “Lovely Rita meter maid.” But when Paul’s lead vocal bursts in, it’s a good-time rock shuffle, pure and simple. Or is it? Listen to all the odd sounds tucked in – the sarcastic zing after “Nothing can come between us” (George did that on slide guitar), the snide scrap of military march after “Made her look a little like a military man” (a little comb-and-paper orchestra John set up), the honky-tonk piano in the break. And at the end, the pounding piano is overlaid with heavy breathing, as if moving towards orgasm; the chords keep modulating uncertainly – they nearly make it – then John snaps “I’m leaving” and a door slams. In a way, this song is Paul’s version of “Norwegian Wood” – an affair with a surreal anticlimax.
In 1967 it was startling to see a woman in a traditional man’s job – and no way is Rita feminine, not with that military-style shoulder bag. She’s a brash New Woman. He asks her to tea and she promptly makes it dinner instead, then she pays the bill. (That didn’t happen often in 1967.) He requests a second date; she cuts to the chase and takes him straight home. Good deal for him, right?
But then things take a weird turn – when he gets to her place, anticipating some boisterous sex, he finds himself “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.” (I love all those staccato words crammed into this line). At first I thought her family was intruding, but soon I guessed she was a feminist with equally liberated roommates – women’s lib was a big topic in 1967, as much so as the generation gap of “She’s Leaving Home.” And from there I began to assume she was a lesbian or even a transvestite (that mannish uniform, the braying laugh at dinner) – or have I been listening too much to the Kinks’ “Lola”? Believe me, I wanted every song Paul McCartney ever sang to be about me, but I never identified with this Rita chick.
I may be over-analyzing, but all these details baffled me when I was a kid. There’s something so compelling about this little scenario, you want to get inside and figure out what’s going on. And for all his declarations – “nothing can come between us,” “where would I be without you,” and the sublimely silly “when it gets dark I tow your heart away” – I don’t hear this as a sincere Paul love song. I hear normal healthy lust, and a guy getting in over his head, in a world where nothing is as it seems. Which makes it a perfect fit for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.