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The Beatles Songs: Yer Blues

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: Yer Blues

Lennon performing "Yer Blues" with The Dirty Mac on "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus"

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Yer Blues

Written by: John Lennon (100%)
(credited as Lennon-McCartney)

Recorded: August 13-14 and 20, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: August 14 and October 14, 1968
Length: 3:58
Takes: 17

Musicians:

John Lennon: lead vocals, lead guitar (1965 Epiphone E230TD(V) Casino)
Paul McCartney: harmony vocals, bass guitar (1964 Fender Bass VI)
George Harrison: rhythm guitar (1968 Fender Rosewood Telecaster)
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig)

Available on: (CDs in bold)

The Beatles (a/k/a "The White Album"; UK: Apple PMC 7067-8; US: Apple SWBO 101; Parlophone CDP 7 46443 2; CDP 7 46444 2)

History:

  • Although the Beatles wrote a few dozen tunes while on their famous trip to Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968, surprisingly few were about the spiritual lessons they'd learned from their teacher, the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi; most of the songs, like "Dear Prudence" and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," were about the experiences of the ashram itself. (Perhaps this foreshadowed their eventual disillusionment with the guru.) John's "Yer Blues," however, was absolutely an existential cry from the heart, a series of cosmic riddles about the nature of his existence not unlike the raw, screaming, soul-searching he'd engage in on his historic "real debut" solo album, Plastic Ono Band.
  • However, at this point John was still tentative, couching his vulnerability in sneering jokes and parody, and so "Yer Blues," which exists in its demo form is a gentle yet emotionally raw lament, becomes on the "White Album" a half-serious parody of the "authentic" blues mania sweeping heavy English rock groups at the time. Though he lets the air out of his revelation with a few mocking blues solos, a winking title, and a gimmicky midtune switch to a straight rock shuffle, the soul of this song is as disturbing as it feels on the surface.
  • Surprisingly, it was George, not John, who came up with the perfect recording technique for "Yer Blues." While recording well over 100 takes of an unused song of his own called "Not Guilty," Harrison asked engineer Ken Scott to clear out a large closet just off Abbey Road's Studio 2 and use omnidirectional mikes so that the entire band could perform it as if it were a live jam. That didn't happen with "Not Guilty," but Lennon realized the method fit "Yer Blues" perfectly. It was accomplished, although not without some artifice: Ringo's "One... two... three..." count-off is tacked on, much as Paul's was on "I Saw Her Standing There," and the resolution back to the original beat, which occurs at 3:16, is actually just a splice of Take 17's first verse, with the vocals wiped. (This is why a faint ghost of John's words can be heard in the background.) The Beatles, performing as a band for the first time in a long, long time, knocked this one out in 16 takes on August 13 after work was completed on "Sexy Sadie," achieving the powerful, live, raw, and gloriously sloppy sound Lennon was looking for. Lennon added a second vocal the next day, and Ringo came up with the count-off, all by his lonesome, on the 20th.

Trivia:
  • The mono version has a louder count-off and a much longer fade.
  • The reference to feeling "so suicidal, just like Dylan's Mr. Jones" is a nod to the Bob Dylan song "Ballad of a Thin Man," which uses the name "Mr. Jones" to refer to conservative, "establishment" types who are confused and frightened by the turbulent social change swirling around them. In the demo, however, John pointedly declares himself "insecure" just like the character. (Note also the reference to the yet-to-be-recorded "Julia" in the line "My mother is of the sky.")
  • "Yer Blues" was one of the very few Beatles songs John performed live without the group: for the aborted 1968 Rolling Stones TV project Rock and Roll Circus, Lennon performed a nine-minute version with a hastily assembled backup band called The Dirty Mac, featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar, the Stones' Keith Richards on bass, and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. (It was eventually released in 1996.) Lennon would later perform it again at the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival in 1969 with Clapton, session drummer Alan White, band associate Klaus Voorman on bass, and Yoko Ono yowling along, sounding remarkably like Lennon's own solos in places.

Covered by: The White Stripes, Elliott Smith, Phish, Jeff Healey, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Nikka Costa, Jimmy Carl Black, Eugene McGuinness, Bonerama, Lucky Peterson, Shun Kikuta, Cy Taggart, Big Gilson, Beat Generation, Melted Horses

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