In 1908, English painter Sydney Curnow Vosper put to canvas a depiction of a woman attending a chapel in Pentre, Gwynedd. Set amongst her community at silent prayer, reflecting on their holy communion, she’s seen to be arriving late and interrupting the congregation’s pious reflection by parading herself along a pew instead of ducking down demurely at the back like a good baptist girl should.
All eyes were on her proud Welsh dress and gauche shawl purely by design - she’d snuck the devil in concealed about her person and wanted to parade him in full view of the unsuspecting. A wolf had joined the flock.
By 1966, The Beatles were doing the very same thing on a global scale, sneaking in cutting edge counter-culture intellectualism on albums and singles with enormous commercial appeal, destined to be played on the radio and bought by impressionable students, teenagers and their parents, all over the civilised world. John Lennon in particular, was making a habit of hiding his hallucinogenic drug use and its effect on his writing and own intellectualism in plain sight, namely on the B-side to Paperback Writer with Rain and then later on an album that will be seen by many as the peak of their artistic and creative collaboration Revolver, with And Your Bird Can Sing and the not-so-subtle Tomorrow Never Knows.
The Beatles were able to straddle the impossible tightrope of chart appeal and boundary breaking progressive thinking. Too few bands have been able to exist at the vanguard of either for more than an album or clutch of singles throughout rock and roll history. During this heady period - ’64 to ’68 or so - they were leading the way in both and having massive success whilst they were at it. Considering how conservative the majority of society still was in the mid 1960’s, that they were able to get people singing along to memories of bad acid trips and the intellectual idealisation of the creative state says more than enough about their ability to catch a new idea and then write a catchy two minute pop song around it.
Pop music generally was becoming more sophisticated across the board and wide ranging subject matter was becoming more commonplace. In the Beatles’ recent catalogue of releases - Day Tripper, Paperback Writer, Rain and Rubber Soul as a whole, new artistic and commercial standards had been set and set against a backdrop of some of the best singles ever released from the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Lovin’ Spoonful (the list goes on and on), 1966 was nothing short of a bumper year for music fans and represents possibly the peak period of self-written pop music.
The Beatles, however, weren’t writing about darkness (Rolling Stones), cheeky-chappie social issues (Kinks), pseudo-Baroque laments (Beach Boys) or ‘vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme’ (Dylan). They were writing about slight alterations of perception, imperceptible to the uninitiated so slight was the deviation from the every day observations of Ray Davies and co., meaning they were able to slip them in with people's cornflakes. Where the Rolling Stones’ devilment was worn on their sleeves - Paint It Black, 19th Nervous Breakdown - and therefore discounted or ignored by the generation that came before, firmly the sole territory of rebellious youth and therefore changing little but superficially. The Beatles slid their devil in unnoticed, and he was here to stay. He always had the best tunes.
“Okay boys, quite brisk, moderato, foxtrot.” - John, cueing in the first take on 20th April, 1966.
Rain may be the best example of this oblique reference to altered state. If, I don’t know, Sir Joseph Lockwood were to read the lyric sheet, he’d likely put it down before finishing it - another lovely pop song about the weather. How nice. If someone was, let’s say, turned on whilst listening to the finished song, they’d have an experience completely removed from Sir Joe’s. Paint It Black this ain’t.
And Your Bird Can Sing is something slightly removed again to The Beatles’ other psychedelic output from this period, however. Lennon was never asked directly about the song, except only to discount it, so it's not overtly obvious as to its meaning.
‘Another of my throwaways…fancy paper around an empty box’ - John, being John.
It's also in part because its lyrics are so sparse yet convey a multitude of meaning. Here we have a coded enigma device that can only be understood by those with the key…which was hard to grab ahold of because it was made of drugs.
Thanks to its myriad of potential meaning, the song is one of the most hotly debated in The Beatles’ canon. Many think it a sly Lennon dig (he was good at these) at Mick Jagger and his beau, Marianne ‘Ironic Name Alert’ Faithfull. This isn’t true, even though I’d like it to be (the ‘and your bird can sing’ from the first verse is a killer put-down) because Lennon wrote and recorded the song before their union was in existence. Others think it about Frank Sinatra, which is again a leap of the imagination, which is a shame, because Lennon having a go at Ol’ Blue Eyes would have been a fun thing for us all to own a piece of. Frank, though later to admit to loving John and Paul’s Something (ahem), was in 1966 having some little public gripes of his own about The Beatles and the invasion they fronted that rendered his generation almost obsolete overnight. Of course, he recovered his career, but many didn’t.
Jonathan Gould in his book Can’t Buy Me Love lays claim to the take that the song’s about Frank, referring to a 1966 Esquire interview with the crooner, calling him ‘the fully emancipated male…who can have anything he wants’. In the piece, Sinatra’s quoted as saying he was ‘tired of kid singers wearing mops of hair thick enough to hide a crate of melons’ in a bizarre metaphor that did nothing buy highlight the generational and psychological chasm that was now established, the very thing he was complaining about and wanting to eradicate.
Someone somewhere, of course, thinks it about Paul - ‘you say you’ve seen seven wonders’/ ‘there are seven levels’, which is a pretty weak, tenuous link. Ultimately, it’s not about any of these things. It’s about perception, and John’s absolutism in regard to his perception of himself - the artist, the rebel, the outsider, the idealist - and only those who have these qualities can understand this or him or his kind - the turned on.
Whatever, this over in two minutes flat, fierce, flashy, power-pop soundscape, built and torn down quicker than it arrives, is an example (of rather a lot) of The Beatles at the summit of their collective musical collaboration. George and Paul combine to great effect in their incredibly difficult to play (and fast) duelling guitar parts. The arrangement elevates the song to the ‘one of the best songs on one of the best albums ever’ category, and is often sited as one of the most memorable guitar passages on any music. Ringo, overdubbing additional tambourines and high-hats to the finished, mightily swinging drum track gives it snap and momentum and Paul’s bass (best heard on the Anthology giggle fest, below) is nothing short of James Jamerson-esque in it’s attack and performance, I believe this was played on his fast, low action Rickenbacker 4001S (happy to be corrected) whilst John and George played their Epiphone Casinos.
Originally arranged as an ‘observation’ (rip-off) on the Californian sound coming from the Byrds, the band kicked off recording on the 20th April, 1966. They got as far as recording a satisfactory backing track and an attempt at recoding the vocals…which famously broke down in hysterical laughter thanks, I’m reasonably confident, to the the magical herb they were so found of. The performance was pure Byrds - McGuinn-style jangle from George and all - a nod from George to the band, recognition that they’d first ‘observed’ him and his 12 string Rickenbacker 360/12 in 1964.
Happily they abandoned this homage for a complete remake six days later, opting for the more dynamic, blisteringly fierce and fast performance that lives on record. In the meantime, they shifted the key up two semi-tones and the result was lift off, elevating their vocal performance and instrumentation. John is quoted as not remembering writing And Your Bird Can Sing, which signals as to his state of mind at the time, and at the level of intuition and inspiration that he was working with during this period. The quantity of his work would diminish throughout 1966 and 1967 before exploding in a mushroom cloud of activity and inspiration in 1968, but the work he was delivering in this mid-Beatle point was of the very highest order. That being said, this is a thrilling band performance and arrangement.
Not receiving the glowing reception of McCartney's work at the time of release - Paul's Here, There and Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine, Eleanor Rigby and For No One caught the public's and critic's imagination, Lennon's songs were more challenging and proved a slower burn, but are now regarded to be near the front of the queue in the bands back catalogue.
This is nothing short of two minutes of pop perfection. What a joy.