My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

Featured image

Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

*

Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

Featured image

Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

Featured image

inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

Featured image

Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

Featured image

Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

Featured image

Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

Featured image

251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

Featured image

Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.

Advertisements

My Pop Life #36 : Penny Lane – The Beatles

Featured image

Penny Lane   –   The Beatles

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway

Possibly the finest lyric from the 1960s or any other time, Paul McCartney is reminiscing about growing up in Liverpool.   This was a monster single when it came out in early 1967 on a double-A-side with John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, also a psychedelic childhood impressionistic work.   They were the first two songs (along with When I’m 64) to be recorded for their new LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but EMI wanted a spring single and producer George Martin offered them these, thus both songs were subsequently not included on that LP.   This double-A side of masterpiece pop theatre – surely one of the peaks of the entire genre of 7″ vinyl – was the first Beatles single since their debut Love Me Do in 1962 (unfeasibly only 5 long years earlier) to fail to reach the Number One position in the charts, being kept stubbornly in the Number Two position by Engelbert Humperdinck’s schmaltzy  “Release Me”.   It presaged the end of The Beatles as a completely dominant cultural force, although the single did reach Number One in the US and they would of course continue to make extraordinary music for the next three years together.

Featured image

Featured image

Those are the facts.   Psycho-geographers and groove-diviners could probably find a mystical mid-way point between the two real locations of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields in Liverpool which would mark the actual centre of the pop universe.   It still thrills me to listen to it, the soaring harmonies, the bright blue suburban brass in the chorus, the English-pop confidence of the characters in & around the barbershop and the Goon-esque BBC comedy line “very strange” at the end of each verse.   Every time I go for a haircut I sing the opening line to myself  : “In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known”.    We meet the banker – clearly a lower-middle class figure of fun – was this a dim memory even in 1966? – the patriotic fireman with a portrait of The Queen in his pocket (more Englishness) and the nurse selling poppies (not real poppies, we somehow know this refers to Nov 11th Armistice Day and the wearing of poppies in remembrance of the war dead).   We get the illicit sexual behind-the-bus-shelter line “a four of fish and finger pies” which doesn’t refer to frozen food, and the fireman’s bell ringing a clear F sharp to herald in the simply magnificent piccolo trumpet solo, played on the session by David Mason, inspired by Paul watching him play it in Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto on the telly a few nights earlier.   Brilliantly engineered as ever by Geoff Emerick the result is a perfect encapsulation of childhood memory become pop art.

I’ve taken the trip down Penny Lane, been to Paul’s old house at 20 Forthlin Road where the teenage Beatles taught each other Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs, I’ve been to John’s Aunt Mimi’s house at 251 Menlove Avenue, (when John was “in my tree” in the back garden he could see Strawberry Fields) and then along to Strawberry Fields’ gate round the corner, seen a gig at the new Cavern and patronised other Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool.   All highly recommended, very well curated, and makes for a magical mystery tour of a day.  Or a week.

Featured image

I’ve bought the T-shirts, seen the tribute bands and even bought the road sign.   It hangs from my vibraphone, currently on loan to Charlotte Glasson from The Brighton Beach Boys, a band I played in for 10 years in Brighton.    I add hastily I wasn’t very good on the vibes, but really loved playing them.

Featured image

After being together for five years and mastering most of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats we moved on to Pet Sounds – the whole LP, then with an heroic attempt at the impossible decided to try Sgt Pepper.  Some bright spark (Neil Hayward of the Robin Hood pub in Brighton) suggested we play both LPs live back to back to settle the old baby-boomer argument about which was better. And so it was that for eight years consecutively we used to play all of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper live with a string quartet and brass & woodwinds in the Brighton Festival each spring.   These evenings remain as some of the very brightest moments in my life.

Featured image

We’d end the show and bring the house down with the final chord of A Day In The Life (it’s an E major popfans) and take the applause – then the first encore just had to be Penny Lane.  I played the alto line in the chorus.  Such joy.   Stephen Wrigley arranged the strings and brass.   Heroic work was undertaken by Dominic Nunns on the French Horn as he would play the piccolo trumpet solo and somehow hit that top note to a burst of applause mid song.  And lead vocal duties were delivered with uncanny accuracy by Glen Richardson who has a crush on St Paul anyway (and is also in a play, but has never sold poppies).

My knee jerk response to that impossible question “what is your favourite Beatles song?” is “Penny Lane” 90% of the time, when I’m not being a smart-arse, or just wallowing in some indulgence.  I love Strawberry Fields too of course, and playing that song live made me appreciate its brilliance even more.  I can’t compare the two songs, they are two sides of the same shiny acid-drenched musical coin, from my favourite musical era, the post-LSD 1960s when for about 2 years all the great songwriters and singers added harpsichords and bells, trumpets and brightly-coloured imagery to their work – Itchycoo Park, Autumn Almanac, I Can See For Miles, Sunshine Superman, See Emily Play.  But there is a purity to this song that eclipses all those great great songs – and it’s there, for me, in the simple, bright blinding light of the chorus:

“…Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…”