Friday, March 11, 2011

Song of the Week: Beatles, "When I'm Sixty-Four"

The people have spoken. 

Thanks to everyone who voted here, on Twitter, and on Facebook for Song of the Week.  I'm a little surprised by the results, but also really excited to write about this one.  Without further delay, here's your pick (by nearly a 2-to-1 margin)!

Song of the Week: The Beatles, "When I'm Sixty-Four" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Let's break this one down, random-category style!

Is that Magic Johnson in Row 3?
The Main Reason I Love This Song:
It combines two of Paul's greatest--and most unique--talents:
1) It's a great melody and
2) It's theatrical

It's no secret--or great revelation--that Paul McCartney's an incredible melodist.  As for #2: it's an under-discussed--and, to me, fascinating--subplot of pop history.  A handful of our best songwriters naturally lean towards the theatrical.

Think of some of Paul's best-known songs: they often involve fictional characters, a specific setting, and plenty of action.  The music itself typically contains dramatic flourishes.  He loves orchestral swells, big productions, and complex arrangements.  It's easy to picture so many McCartney songs scoring a Broadway show, performed onstage.  For example:
"Penny Lane"
"Eleanor Rigby"
"She's Leaving Home"
"Golden Slumbers" (and Abbey Road's surrounding tunes)
"The Long and Winding Road"
"Your Mother Should Know"
And, of course, "When I'm Sixty-Four"
The list goes on...

As soon as "When I'm Sixty-Four" begins, you can immediately picture two spotlit actors, center-stage, doing the ole soft shoe, guy singing to his head-shaking, eye-rolling, charmed-despite-herself gal.  It's no great surprise that the first Beatles concept album was Paul's idea, and that his idea was essentially staging a play: a fictional concert by a fictional band.

A few other songwriters that venture into this realm:
--Adam Duritz ("Butterfly In Reverse" could be in a Pixar movie, and "Accidentally In Love" was)
--Elton John (a million Disney and Broadway connections)
--Pete Townshend (the original rock opera composer)
--Latter-day Billy Joe Armstrong (American Idiot has become a Broadway show, and 21st Century Breakdown could)

Who are some other songwriters you'd put in this category?

The Sleeper Reason I Love This Song:
It's a really underrated lyric.  As great as Sgt. Pepper is, I've always thought it was slightly overrated musically (Revolver has better songs, Abbey Road is more ambitious, and Help! is a more fun listen), but underrated lyrically.  In fact, I think it's the strongest album of lyrics that John or Paul ever wrote.  The language is rich, challenging, and beautiful; the images are fresh and vivid; the storytelling (especially in Paul's case) is pitch-perfect.  No words are wasted.  And, above all else, the ideas are new.  Track-to-track, you're hearing something you've never heard before in a pop song.

With "When I'm Sixty-Four" specifically, I've always admired it a great deal.  It can sometimes be much harder to write a song "in a style" (affectionate parody of an old-school ragtime, piano standard in this case) than with a blank slate.  Every song style has its own vocabulary, its own set of rules.  Language and space are limited.  Also, the song has to find the right emotional balance: it can't sound like a carbon copy of an old standard, but it can't sound like a distanced, snarky, ironic put-down.

Of course, Paul's affection for this type of music and his talent for making anything his own win the day.  The lyrics are humorously tongue-in-cheek (the name choices alone of "Vera, Chuck, and Dave" are marvelous), yet warm and respectful.  That balance is perhaps best shown, side-by-side, in the couplet "Indicate precisely what you mean to say/Yours sincerely, Wasting Away."  Genuine warmth vs. underlying black humor.  It's a love letter to his father's favorite music, written with great affection.

Random Fact About This Song:
From Wikipedia:
"The song was nearly released on a single as the B-side with either "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "Penny Lane" as the A-side. Instead, Martin decided on a double-A-sided-disc. The single did not make #1 in the United Kingdom Singles Chart, breaking a string of #1 singles going back to 1963.  If "When I'm Sixty-Four" had been issued as a B-side, it probably would not have appeared on Sgt. Pepper."

It looks like Paul's wearing Flavor Flav's clock necklace.
Random Awe-Inspiring Fact About This Song, As Revealed By John Lennon:
"Paul wrote it in the Cavern days...this was just one that was quite a hit with us."

As other biographical materials confirm, "When I'm Sixty-Four" was actually one of the first songs Paul McCartney ever wrote.  Just in case you need reminding that the guy's extra-terrestrial-talented.

Random Yet Revealing Other Thing John Once Said About This Song:
"I would never even dream of writing a song like that."

This is accurate, but not really the put-down it appears to be.  One cliche--but usually true--characterization of the Beatles is that John wrote about himself, and Paul wrote about everyone else.  John described feelings; Paul told stories.  This dichotomy is perhaps best shown in "A Day In the Life."  John's section is somber and meditative ("I read the news today, oh boy...").  Paul's is upbeat and action-driven ("Woke up, got out of bed...").  Of course, there are always exceptions: John's "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" describes an outside world and fictional characters with stylized zeal as Paul so often did.

While John surely admired the song's cleverness and humor, he probably (if anything) criticized Paul's affection for anything old.  John was an ardent rock n' roller.  He valued youth, rebellion, and vitality too much to write lovingly about sextagenarians knitting by a fireside.  To John, that's not cute; it's boring.

Of course--as the Beatles show--it can be both.

What This Song Means Today:
I wrote above that Paul's "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a "love letter to his father's music."  I don't hear many soft-shoe vignettes in 2011, but I do hear plenty of artists singing love letters to their parents' music.  One recent, interesting, and massively popular example is Amy Winehouse's Back To Black album, which takes the music of her parents' youth (60's girl groups like the Shirelles and Ronettes) and makes it contemporary again.

Here's the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"...

( to remember how great that song is...dear Lord...okay, we're back now...)

...and here's a cover by Winehouse.  That's the template for Back To Black, and her devotion to that older style dominates songs like "Me and Mr. Jones" and "Love Is a Losing Game." 

As an artist who not only writes pop songs but adores pop songs from every era, I hope there's always a place for artists who want to revisit--and revamp--history this way. 

Okay--I'd better stop typing now.  I could do this all day.  Thanks again for your votes--y'all picked a great Song of the Week, and I had a blast thinking about your choice.  Hit up the comments to let me know what you're thinking--it's your SOW, after all!

Til next week,

1 comment:

ross k. said...

Wow...much to say about the Bea'les here...I may do that later, but in the meantime, you know my favorite girl-group song?

"Someday We'll Be Together."

Blows my mind.

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