Friday, March 25, 2011

Song of the Week: Beatles, "Dig a Pony"

Before I dig in to this week's song (pun intended), a bit of clarification for Beatles nerds and non-nerds alike.

Folks never really know what to do with the last two Beatles albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road.  Because Let It Be was recorded before but released after Abbey Road, labeling "the last Beatles album" becomes difficult.  And since I'm going through their discography "chronologically," I had a decision to make: which album would I tackle first for Song of the Week? 

I'm making Abbey Road "last" for two reasons:
1) It was made last, so in the actual chronology of the Beatles' work, this makes sense.
2) It's just a better, more fitting swan song than Let It Be.

So, for now, let's rock out to...

Song of the Week, The Beatles "Dig a Pony" (Let It Be):

I love "Dig a Pony" for several reasons, but I picked it for one: it's the best example of what 1) the Beatles wanted to do with this album 2) the Beatles did with this album and 3) John Lennon valued most in his music.

About #1 and #2:
The original title of Let It Be was Get Back.  The idea was to play simple, roots-based rock, live as a band, without studio frills or sonic experimentation.  In other words, Get Back was to be the opposite of Sgt. Pepper--a return to basics for the Beatles.  This was the Beatles coming full circle, right down to the inclusion of "One After 909," one of the first Lennon/McCartney songs written.  True to form, Let It Be is full of live performances and straightforward rhythm-n-blues: "Dig It," "Maggie Mae," "I've Got a Feeling," "One After 909," "For You Blue," and, to a degree, "Get Back." 

But "Dig a Pony" is my favorite of the bunch.  It juxtaposes two things that made the Beatles so special: 1) nobody played simple R&B better, and 2) the Beatles were too good to do something simply.  "Dig a Pony" can sound as predictable or as unexpected as you want it to sound.  The song's structure is easy enough, but the main riff is a rhythmic wonder.  The chorus is as simple as they come, but the way they earn that chorus (individual harmonies, George's escalating guitar fills) is layered and complex.

In other words, "Dig a Pony" sounds like what it is: a band returning to its roots, but with eight years of experience and maturation to aid them.  It's the best of both worlds: their early love for straight-ahead rock with their late-era maturity and craftsmanship. 

About #3:
A few weeks ago, I wrote affectionately about "It's Only Love," despite John Lennon's public disdain for it.  You're not going to believe this, but he claimed to hate "Dig a Pony" too.  He once called it "a piece of garbage."  And once again, he's wrong.

Lyrically, "Dig a Pony" is 96% nonsense--a barrage of non sequiturs and goofy wordplay biding time until the chorus.  That's perhaps what Lennon didn't like about the song (he was critical of "It's Only Love's" lyrics, too).  But that's also what I love about it.

In another song, the nonsense lyrics of the verse would be a detriment; here, they're accounted for.  Lennon--like anyone in love might--rambles through verses, makes jokes, beats around the bush, and inarticulately expresses everything but the one thing he's dying to say.  The breakthrough of the chorus echoes a moment in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," where a frustrated, rambling narrator exclaims, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!"

Finally, John Lennon does say just what he means.  The chorus breaks through the confusion with a gorgeous, cathartic moment of clarity.  He screams the only thing he really wants to say: all I want is you.  That's it.  That's the whole song: all I want is YOU.  It's such a powerful--and well-earned--moment of catharsis that you can see it transform John's face as he's singing it (1:59) and immediately after (his relieved, overjoyed "ahhs!" with Paul's "woo!" at 2:12).

You can't NOT feel that. 

This is a classic "John song," right down to his public denial of it.  Although Lennon was probably the most "avant garde" Beatle, he was maybe the least cerebral.  Through all his experimentation--with spirituality, drugs, musical styles, production techniques, etc--he was looking for a new means of expression, not a new mode of thinking.  In "A Day In the Life"--perhaps the best example of Lennon/McCartney avant garde songwriting--Lennon's repeated line is "I'd love to turn you on."  That's not only the song's refrain; that's Lennon's mission statement.  First and foremost, he wants to make you feel.

It's what Chuck Berry, and Elvis, and Little Richard, and all of rock's pioneers wanted, too.  That feeling is what inspired the Beatles to pick up instruments.  And, after years of mind-bending albums, it's what the Beatles wanted to return to with Let It Be: pure, simple, exciting rock and roll.  Maybe more than any other song on the album, "Dig a Pony" achieves that goal.  For all its nonsense, it makes sense in the most fundamental way.  It speaks to the heart and soul instead of the head.

Dig a moondog,

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