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Alphabeaticles. Part 19: Any Time At All.

Quite how the Beatles found the time to do anything productive at all during the gigging phase of their career is a wonder, yet somehow they managed to find the time to write, record and perform prodigiously.

During the ‘mania’ years, the band simply produced at a speed that would make modern mega-acts burst into flames. With an untold number of distractions to keep them from quiet time with their guitars, between 1961 - 1966 the band released one hundred and nineteen songs, had eleven number one hits across fourteen singles (including My Bonnie), released seven studio albums, plus enough material for two Live at the BBC compilations, starred in two films and performed one thousand and fifty three shows across thirty four tours, including Christmas residencies and showcases. If that wasn’t enough, John Lennon also had two books of verse published during this period. And I haven't included 1960's Hamburg debut.

Add to that the constant demands on their time from press conferences, radio and newspaper interviews, TV appearances, commercial opportunities, and the myriad other taps on shoulders that white hot fame brought, and suddenly the opening line seems like an enormous understatement.

When asked about the their schedule, Ringo once claimed that the Beatles did around ‘five things every day’, ranging from going to a recording session, an interview, a business meeting, a TV appearance, then onto a gig and finally a nightclub until the early hours, only to do it all again the following day. That was just their domestic schedule, without any of the additional demands of touring. It was simply punishing.

‘What’s to rehearse? Smiling, that’s all we rehearse’, fired Lennon, in one of an endless round of press junkets to promote a North American tour.

In the middle of this period came Any Time At All. The song was one of the last three tracks to be recorded for their film debut soundtrack album A Hard Day’s Night, along with Things We Said Today and When I Get Home. All three songs were started and finished during the same session. Likely written in May 1964 when holidaying with first wife Cynthia in Tahiti alongside George Harrison and Patti Boyd, it was first played in front of the other two Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick on the 2nd of June at Abbey Road.

John and Cyn in the sun, 1964.

Typical for the time, Lennon showcased the song incomplete, not having the time or will to finish it and hoping for the collective to rally round and fill in the gaps. The gaps were namely a tricky vocal arrangement where Lennon needed to take a breath between overlapping phrases a la the White Album’s Julia, and an as yet unwritten ‘middle eight’.

Patti & Cyn & a large fan (Credit: Beatles Bible)

If indeed the song was written whilst on holiday with Harrison, then here is an interesting insight into the creative dynamic between the two old friends. Had McCartney been on the trip, it’s unlikely that any new composition would have gone unfinished. It’s all too easy to imagine Paul grabbing a guitar and saying ‘I’ve got a great idea for tha’ bit there, John’. It’s equally unlikely that George would have been oblivious to the writing, as deadlines were approaching and songs and ideas would have been floating around during their break.

With tapes of Lennon’s compositional process widely available on streaming services, the writing of Strawberry Fields Forever, Mind Games, If I Fell, She Said She Said and more reveal his bitty, conjunctive writing style.

Inspiration often coming after an initial idea as he clawed his way to finding a direction or chordal solutions to harmonically horizontal melodies (thank you Ian MacDonald). He would most certainly have been picking up phrases and searching for answers in front of his holidaying pals. However, George either felt unable to provide a solution, or more likely, felt unable to offer one. This feeling would eventually come to a head when recording Revolver, two years later.

Needing help to finish Taxman, George, living about a mile away, called John in Weybridge for some ideas. ‘He [George] came to me ‘cos he couldn’t go to Paul [who] wouldn’t have helped him at that period. I didn’t want to do it, I thought ‘oh no, don’t tell me I have to work on George’s stuff’…I..bit my tongue and said ‘ok’.’ This spirit was compounded when, not attending the studio because of a row, George helped John finish off the Revolver track She Said She Said - assisting with the arrangement and playing bass guitar, effectively being Paul. It was hoped Harrison would get a songwriting credit, but for legal and personal reasons it was not forthcoming.

In 1964 Harrison either didn’t feel sure enough of his ideas to vocalise them, or they weren’t heard. With Beatlemania Lennon, either option is believable, but this makes it all the more surprising how the band (Paul and George Martin) collectively solved the problem of the empty middle eight. Leaving it blank during the recording on virtually the last day of the A Hard Day’s Night sessions, the instrumental passage that was supposed to contain a vocalised counterpoint to Lennon’s verse/chorus melody had little time to be developed except for a chromatic piano piece that sounds like an afterthought, which is what it was. The band, having recorded three songs that day were flying by the seat of their pants, and desperate to finish the album and move on to what was to come next each decision they took on the hoof under the tutorage of George Martin appeared to pay off.

Bar the two guitar strums that end the song, Paul’s piano overdub completed the day’s work. One can only imagine George having an idea to fill that gap along the lines of his break in All My Loving. We’ll never know, but here a last minute fill from Paul was worth more than the ear of the young Harrison. Still, it works, giving the song a chance to catch its breath.

An effort at writing It Won’t Be Long. Same ilk: C to A minor with me shouting. — Lennon on Any Time At All

The production team also had to fix the problem of the vocal lines, that like Love Me Do and the aforementioned Julia, involved overlaps and the risk of running out of breath. John had to utilise double tracking - his favourite studio tool, used cleverly with purpose here - to fill in his own gaps. As a solution, Lennon would need to leave a gap after singing ‘there is nothing I won’t do’ and ‘shoulder to cry on’ , using the overdub to place ‘when you need a’ in the middle to complete the line.

Lennon may have planned to use this trick again to complete the breathy, powerful opening line that follows Ringo’s starting pistol motif of floor tom and snare.

CRACK! Any time at aaall!

Attacking the vocal however, as with on A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon found that the note was just out of his upper chest range, so had to pull in McCartney to respond to his call in the ensuing any time at all’. In its own way, the track is a perfect companion piece to the A Hard Day’s Night single that opens the first side of the album. It begins side two with a signature crash and careers into view, railroading along its two minute, eleven second life span before disappearing over the horizon. The chorus is a full octave higher than the verse, giving a distinct dynamic that for most bands would have been enough for a hit single.

Lennon’s in fine vocal form, as he is all over the accompanying album, full of the aggressive assuredness that drives its lead singe, but with a pleading desperation that gives light to the shade. Strident acoustic guitars backed with skimmed high hats give this song its signature Beatlemania tone. Through the angst beamss joy.

How they found the time, Any Time At All, to fill every corner with detail and colour let alone record it and its brethren in the same vein is a marvel. Listen and long for simpler times.

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