Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Little Lamb Dragonfly" / Paul McCartney & Wings

Listen to this recording; hear the clicks and pops? That's because I converted my old well-loved LP to a digital recording so I could hear the old Wings stuff on my iPod. Of course I could have bought a clean digital version of it, but why? I love hearing the scuffs and hisses that years of overuse left on the vinyl.

My private theory about "Little Lamb Dragonfly" -- and I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong -- is that this was yet another of the many coded messages that the former Beatles sent back and forth to each other. After that Paul Is Dead hoax, I always scrutinized Beatle lyrics for secret messages, and really, who could ignore the message John sent Paul in his song "How Do You Sleep?" I have to say, I never felt the same about John after that.

So my theory --- which sprang full-blown into my head the very first time I listened to Red Rose Speedway -- is that this is really two songs, "Little Lamb" and "Dragonfly." (Red Rose Speedway is full of such medleys, or collage songs, Paul falling back on his old tricks from the second side of Abbey Road.) And while "Little Lamb" is addressed to George Harrison, "Dragonfly" is written to John Lennon.

Listen to that opening guitar riff on "Little Lamb," lacy and loopy and sitar-like; listen to Paul's vocal, which sounds uncannily like George. The melody, too, is dominated by downward swoops, another George trademark. He calls him "little lamb" because a lamb is such a gentle, peaceful animal, and wistfully reflects "I have no answer for you, little lamb / I can help you out / But I cannot help you in" -- a reference, surely, to Harrison's continuing inward spiritual quests.

Lennon, however, is a "dragonfly" -- Paul may have been thinking "gadfly," but wanted to make it fiercer and yet more noble. And his message to the dragonfly is even more touching: "Dragonfly, fly by my window / You and I still have a way to go / Don't know why you hang around my door / I don't live here any more." That complicated, intense relationship between Lennon and McCartney is not so easily put to rest, and Paul no doubt resented John criticizing him for songs he'd written years earlier. My heart almost breaks to hear Paul yearn "since you've gone / I never know / I go on, but I / Miss you so." (As he sings this, however, his voice soars upward, sounding like early Bee Gees -- who knows why.) Later on, he puts it even more ruefully: "How did two rights make a wrong." Indeed, how could the conjunction of two such amazing talents be a source of regret?

Macca certainly spends more time on the Dragonfly part of the song -- defending himself ("I'm flying / Can't you see me I'm flying"), hoping for the future ("You and I can find a way to see . . . the years ahead will show / How little we really know." Oddly enough, although Red Rose Speedway didn't come out until 1973, this song was originally recorded in 1970 when Paul was working on Ram, so it wasn't a response to "How Do You Sleep?" (which John put on his 1971 Imagine album). When I first heard this song, though, I couldn't help but see it as Paul's rebuttal. And being a confirmed McCartneyite, you know which side I was on.

It's a lovely track, though. Even though it runs to over six minutes, I never feel it's too long (maybe because it still feels like two songs for the price of one). It starts simply and then builds; being a 70s record, of course, it overdoes the synths, and I can't ignore those cheesy Linda-and-Denny echoes ("I'm waiting, can't you see me, I'm waiting"). But if you want fluid, gorgeous melodies, Paul McCartney is always your man, and here they are. There's a reason why this song, once in my head, won't leave. And any day when I've got Paul McCartney in my head is a good day for me.


Clutch Cargo said...

So glad you chose to write about that one, Holly.
I just about O'Deed on Red Rose when it came out. It was during a very difficult part of my life, and listening to it made me even sadder, but in a good way. It got me through that phase. And Dragonfly was certainly the highlight of that LP to me.
Your interpretation gave me chills because I never considered the lyrics were about George and John. But I think you're exactly on the money. For some reason that is a perfect album to listen to in the dark at bedtime...which is what I will do tonight. Thanks for another excellent review, Holly.

Alex said...

Ah, Sir Paul.

Even his fluffy stuff has hints of genius... but his genius stuff makes you wish he'd had someone challenging him to do push himself to be better (especially in the early 70s).

Thanks for sharing this!

Holly A Hughes said...

It's true, there are so many brilliant fragments of songs on this LP . . . but he didn't seem to know where to take them. Personally, though, I love the lapidary effect of these interwoven songs. The stuff he's doing now as Fireman isn't really all that different -- sort of free-association music. It's when he's at his loosest, and not trying to craft a radio hit, that he still has the gift.

Dan, I really lived with this album too; it's almost an out-of-body experience now to listen to it. I miss the time in my life when I really immersed myself in a record like this. The iPod has somewhat given that back to me, but it's not the same thing -- I've got too many other things cluttering up my head now.

Mister Pleasant said...

Definitely one of the (for me few) highlights of my least favorite Wings LP. As for the cheesy vocal harmonies, I stand by my belief that Linda's plain voice was one of Wing's secret weapons. The limitations of her voice forced Paul to write simple yet gorgeous harmonies that are a distinctive feature of that "Wings" sound.

As usual Holly, you have incredible perceptions into lyrics. I always noticed the Harrison vocal imitation at the beginning but until now never saw the connection in the words. As for the back and forth John/Paul messages, it is a credit to Paul that he never stooped to outright meanness in his replies. That they got past it and were able to be distant friends is a happy note to end on.

wwolfe said...

A year or two ago, one of my music frienda and I did a project called "The Beatles: If." The premise was that the band did not break up in 1970; instead, they continued until 1975, when John retired from public life to be a father, and the they boys went their separate ways in a much less acrimonious manner. We complied one album per year from the various A- and B-sides and album cuts recorded by each of the four during that year. My friend chose this song for his 1973 album, which surprised me, since I'd accepted the critical consensus that "Red Rose Speedway" was Paul's low point. When I actually took the time to dig out the record and listen to this song, I loved it. In fact - great minds, as they say - I told my friend, "It sounds like Paul talking to John." Nice to find someone who hears it the same way! (By the way, "How Do You Sleep?" had the same effect on me - I've just never been able to feel as fond of John as I did before that. Reading Geoff Emerick's book about his years as the Beatles' engineer simply confirmed my sense of Paul's and John's personalities.)

Jakelewis said...

Ok, I thought NObody else in the world saw it this way too. I remember being 18 and riding my honda to the record store to buy this. Although I like 99% of it, LLD was my immediate favorite and I also immediately 'knew' it was about GH at the start and JL after that. The line about "I can help you out, but..." I kind took to him not appearing at Bangla Desh. Separately, if you like PM outtakes go to

Joseph Madonna said...

You nailed the analysis of this song. Probably my favorite McCartney song from the 70s along side Warm and Beautiful. What are your thoughts on Mamunia? I always thought it was about John. I think it was written around the time John was in LA (The Next Time You See L.A. Rainclouds) during his "Lost Weekend." I always thought the lyrics from Mamunia were a response to Lennon:

The seed is waiting in the earth, For the rain to come and give it birth,
That's all it really needs to set it free.

As Lennon wrote on Mind Games:

Love is the answer and you know that for sure
Love is a flower, you got to let it, you got to let it grow

Band on the Run/Mamunia were released months after Mind Games and I always thought those lyrics and the song in general were a direct response to Minds Games and Lennon.

Holly A Hughes said...

Good insights on "Mamunia," Joseph. I love that line about L.A. rainclouds, the way the vocals overlap on it.

I am so glad to see that I'm not the only one finding these "messages" in those songs!

Anna said...

Really interesting interpretation of the song – thank you very much, Holly.

This beautiful song goes around and around in my head, I just can’t get it off.
When it comes to the Dragonfly-part, I sometimes find myself singing „Once there was a way to get back homeward” instead of „Dragonfly fly by my window”.
Isn’t there something similar in the melody?
It seems to me as if the pain that have caused the screaming in Golden Slumbers „keeps coming back again” in Little Lamb Dragonfly. But perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Holly A Hughes said...

Indeed, I think there is an echo of "Golden Slumbers" in there -- good detective work! On the other hand, I wonder if this is intentional. McCartney does have certain melodic runs that come naturally to him, and maybe this is one of them. All the same, hearing the echo of that lovely phrase from "Golden Slumbers" will definitely enhance my pleasure in Dragonfly from now on.

Sylphana said...

"Dragonfly" is definitely John, however, I think "Little Lamb" is a reference to Yoko. She said often, especially at that time, how abused she'd been by her first husband (who later kidnapped their daughter Kyoko), and then by society, especially Beatles fans who blame her for the breakup. Notice, Paul says, "My heart is breaking for you, Little Lamb" in response to what she's going through, but then in answer to her determination to become "the fifth Beatle" he follows by saying "I can help you out, but I cannot help you in"..(As in, "I cannot help you join what is rightfully our (the Beatles') inner circle, because I also think you don't belong there.")...Just my own observation, but I think its a valid point.

Holly A Hughes said...

Now that's an intriguing angle -- and it sounds very persuasive. Thanks!

Dikla said...

I've been a Beatles fan for 15 years now and what a rare (and so wonderful) occasion to learn a new thing about them...
I think you're right with your theory.
Thank you so much for this!

Anonymous said...

Great! Your post is really good, and made me think about the lyrics. But I have to disagree about the way you talk about John and Paul fighting through their songs. On RAM, Paul wrote a couple of songs that seem to be messages to John, like dear boy and too many people. Then John wrote How can you sleep, as a response to Paul's teasing. Paul is my favourite one, my Idol, my hero. Nut I really don't know by which side to be in this case... Anyway, thank you for the post!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree about the Dragonfly - John connection, but speculated that the Little Lamb is Julian Lennon. Paul was very much like a an uncle to Julian, and in some ways this song mirrors Hey Jude, trying to provide solice/support to Julian. In the early 70's John and Julian were essentaily estranged and it hurt young Julian terribly. Paul offers support but "has no answer" for the Little Lamb becuase Paul is also estranged from John. Also note the similarity of thee la, la, la coda in LLDF to Hey Jude - it even has the same number of bars. Try singing the la la's with Hey Jude melody over LLDF and it fits right in. I think Paul was offering solice to the boy and making a plea to his father for reconcilation: "come on home" he sings in the end.

Mika'ele Thomas said...

In 1974 I lost a good friend in High school from a very sad car accident. This song took me right to him spiritually... It was a communication for me after his death. All the lyrics fit into the pain of missing him and I felt he was trying to ease my pain through this song. It did help as I listened to it so many nights that year to help me get through it all. Songs send many messages in so many different ways. I've always belived it was part of Gods plan to send messages through music. Mahalo Paul for the his awesome song. One of my personal all the time favorite's.