Thursday, September 10, 2009

"And Your Bird Can Sing" / The Beatles

Okay, I can feel myself sliding right into the marketing trap. The new Rock Band game, the remastered studio albums, the monaural box set -- yep, the hottest band in the world right now is suddenly a half-dead quartet from Liverpool. On top of all that, I've got tickets burning in my pocket to see the great Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux tonight, performing Revolver straight through. (I saw them do the White Album a couple years ago; I can't wait to hear what they do with Revolver.) So I might as well abandon myself to it, and let my 16-year-old self -- the one who ate, drank, and slept Beatles for months at a time -- out of the box.

The opening of this song -- that doubled guitar riff, swirling down the scale and up again, a rare Paul-George guitar duo -- hits my ear like a long-lost friend. I remember this as the opening song on the Beatles cartoon show, a crassly commercial rip-off that was ten times better than it needed to be. (I can still hear the Ringo character's Scouse giggle -- "huh-huh-huh, yeah.") Although now it's a track on Revolver - the remastered albums all follow the UK track listings -- as a kid I had the US albums, so this song was on Yesterday . . . And Today; that's where my ears expect to find it, right at the beginning of side 2, before "If I Needed Someone."

This just feels like a John Lennon song to me -- that whiff of snide contempt (a la "Think For Yourself") as he describes the poseur he's singing to: "
You tell me that you've got everything you want / And your bird can sing / But you don't get me, / You don't get me." (Love how he pauses on that last line, just before voices explode into harmony on "me".) There are lots of theories about what this song means, but I like to believe that it was written to Mick Jagger, whose girlfriend -- his "bird" -- Marianne Faithfull was also a singer. We were so used to the term "bird" meaning "girl," it took a few listens before we realized "and your bird can sing" played on the original meaning as well.

The verses all read like a coded conversation, flipping off the guy's egotistical boasts ("You say you've seen seven wonders," Tell me that you've heard every sound there is"), showing off his "green" bird who can "swing." (That verb "swing" distracts some listeners into thinking this is about Frank Sinatra, who famously expressed scorn for the Beatles.) Whoever he's singing to, John shrugs him off, sarcastically declaring, "you don't get me //You can't see me, // You can't hear me." Notice how each verse hews to its own line of imagery -- possession, sight, sound -- the sort of writerly discipline that always marked the Beatles as professional songsmiths.

He does offer a sort of olive branch in the bridges (unusually, the bridge is repeated twice, with different lyrics, bracketing a nifty guitar solo). If the guy runs into trouble -- "When your prized possessions start to weigh you down" or "When your bird is broken, will it bring you down" -- John offers, "I'll be round." That touch deftly rescues this song from mean-spiritedness.

Notice how, in the verse, whenever John "quotes" the other guy's words, the rhythms are straightforward quarter notes, clinging to a nice major chord, with falsetto back-up harmonies; but as soon as he speaks in his own voice, he sings solo, with slippery backbeat rhythms and minor chords. And in the bridge, as the emotions get more complicated, so do the rhythms and the chords (augmented, 7ths, and sharped keys), though the melody keeps anchored to a repeated B note. I've read that Lennon loved to throw exotic chords into a song, with classic wiseguy bravura. But instinctively -- he'd never studied music theory, couldn't even read music -- Lennon knew how to use such musical effects, not just to show off but to enhance a pop song's drama. That's genius shining through.

So bring on the wordlwide media hype; I'm ready for it. I figure, any excuse to hear Beatle music has to be good.


IƱaki said...

Great song and great writing - Thank you!

wwolfe said...

In his long section at the back of "Stranded," Greil Marcus refers to the guitars on this song as "golden rain," which seems just right to me. This is one of my favorites of the Beatles, perhaps even more so because it hasn't been overplayed on the oldies stations, and because I was a latecomer to "Yesterday...and Today," so I didn't hear the song until I was in college. It was thrilling to discover such a top-notch Beatles song after eight years of devoted listening. I'd add Paul's bass playing as one more ingredient that makes the music great. This song, and "Rain" and "Paperback Writer" were right around where he went from being very good to just about unparalleled as a bass player. (Only James Jamerson tops him, in my estimate.)

Oh, yeah - I ordered the mono box. Why even try to giht it?

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, yes, Paul's bass playing...I know I have a special weakness for anything Paul does, but really, no one should ever contest his pre-eminence on the bass. He invented an entirely new way of thinking about the instrument's possibilities -- almost as if he'd invented a new instrument! Listening to the Fab Faux the other night -- and they are lucky to have a bassist as talented as Will Lee is -- the song where Paul's bassline really stood out was, oddly enough, "I Want You (You're So Heavy)." That relentlessly climbing bass line overpowers the guitar line, and makes that magnificent mess of a song even more compelling than ever. I was just trippin' on it!

J-Money said...

To me, that's the best part of the remastered box set... the prominence of Paul's bass.

The best stereo I own is in my car so--with apologies to Supertramp--I've taken the long way home every time I can, just so I can revel in the Hofner-fueled magic.

Natsthename said...

Hottest band! Can you believe it? I even heard Beatles on the radio, and not on a classic rock station. Pretty cool.

Mark said...

This is one of my favorite Beatles songs, one of those songs that would have been the crowning achievement for practically any other group, but for the Beatles, it's just another album track. The guitar playing on this one is heavenly.

I like the idea that it's about Frank Sinatra, although Frank would have been mightily confused, as "bird" is Rat Pack slang for penis. But that just makes it even funnier! Frank often referred to "Something" as "My favorite Lennon/McCartney song." Right...I love Frank, but sometimes he wasn't that hip.

Carabella said...

One of the top ten best ever (and I abhor lists) frigging Beatles tunes that still can grab me as they hit Ed Sullivan when I was in the 7th grade and truly broke up after I was out of high school in 69, so I really LIVED through it. I often just don't want to hear ANY Beatles anymore, been hearing it all for so long, it triggers/mirrors all the bits from my youth, then in constant exposure becomes a dull, redundant parody of what it once was...However, this one will always rock, no matter what because of that dang hot opening riff...also takes me back to being in a car driving down the coast near Santa Barbara when Everything was possible, the world was young my cement was wet.