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The Beatles musical humour
28 July 2016
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ewe2
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Plenty has been said about the Beatles humour offstage. But we should also examine how they expressed it musically, and it is important for the influences upon them. The obvious influence is George Martin and his association with the Goons collectively and individually. But they were also influenced by past humour in songs and parodies too. One of their big motivations was to have fun as well as be a big famous rock band. Almost determined, they were! I have to define parody in several ways, as the Beatles used parody according to several definitions: one, the Gilbert and Sullivan way of taking a style and using it to humorous effect in another context. Two, covering a song by parodying a general musical style and mashing that up (we call this "style parody" rather than a direct one). Three, taking a style and exaggerating it, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes to direct attention, either in an original song or a cover. If you've listened to Weird Al Yankovic, a couple of those definitions will make sense to you. Most parody is a change of context, or as an inspiration to something original. It's how we make most art, how we learn to make it, and why the greed of copyright controllers shrinks our culture because of the fear of litigation. The third definition is what I would call the final stage of parody where it becomes almost indistinguishable from originality other than being something you can recognise.

Let's get the Goons out of the way first, because other threads have mentioned this. The generation growing up in 1950's Britain knew the Goons, they were the biggest thing on radio. Their verbal, verging on intellectual, and anti-authority style of humour was yet clownish and zany, full of impressions and characters and a lot of breaking the 4th wall too. It left a mark on everyone it seems. So that explains a lot of the Christmas records, for instance. When it came to making music, though, the jokes are rarer, but there are a few cheeky nods peeking through. It's the sense of mischief that led to the "tit-tit-tit" chorus in Girl, the sly backup jokes in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da , the side comments that to me make an inseparable part of the album Let It Be . They loved the Goon songs too, and that's also fairly obvious from the Christmas records more than anything else. Another thing to finish with those records, the eagerness to send up their big songs is evident from the start, as well as new songs for the fun of it.

Much of the Beatles "breaking the 4th wall" is on the side, not drawn attention to, to see if people picked up on it. You could also place the beginning of Taxman in that category. Another favourite example is their increasing habit of leaving guide vocals in (John being the main culprit here), effectively part of the performance. You might not immediately see that as humour, but that's the point, that's them making a joke of the "perfection" of recording. I have been a fan of those web sites that collect the weird bits of Beatles recordings and once you realise that they loved the accidental or "random" and used it with tongue firmly in cheek, it takes on a whole new meaning. I'm not saying everything was intentional, far from it. But if they saw it, they often kept it just for the sake of the joke, even if it was only between them.

Another Martin-Goon association that is more directly about musical parody is something I didn't realise til recently. Martin worked with The Temperance Seven on some of their best work, their biggest album in 1961 with the No #1 hit "You're Driving Me Crazy". But he'd also worked with them years earlier and one song in particular is very interesting, its Peter Sellars singing in a Goonish voice that old classic Ukulele Lady with none other than the Temperance Seven as backup. Now listen to Honey Pie , the influence is undeniable. But also you have to throw in The Charleston and a few other bits but it's an expert parody from Paul based on those elements.

The Beatles have been accused of being master parodists above all else by some people. When you listen to You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) there are a number of elements you can recognise from their past musical history over and above the obvious Goon song elements. People were very impressed by their covers in the early days, some accusing them of killing the RnB movement in America by being so popular that their peers also covered a lot of RnB and was preferred to the originals. The line between cover and parody can get pretty thin. I think Besame Mucho pretty much crosses that line according to definitions 2 and 3 from above. I couldn't imagine performing that song with a straight face, it must have taken practice to get over the giggles with that one. Devil In Her Heart is another one, it's something to do with serious lyrics over that beat, which is no walkover to do either. And what do we think of the whoos in Twist And Shout and Money? A deliberate context-switch that still makes me uncomfortable. So there's a fair bit of definition two in the early Beatles period with touches of three.

I would say that as they began to dispense with the covers, the parodies increased. Partly to get songs out quick and to have fun with it. I suspect John in particular of parodying the early Beatles style itself just to do a song or two. He was very dismissive of songs on the 2nd to 4th albums (UK) as basically throw-offs or parodies. Of course as the Beatles went from "a" style to "any" style, this became a way of life and impossible to mimic. You might have thought they were impossible to parody but Neil Innes and Todd Rundgren (not to mention XTC) would disagree rather happily. In fact it was their parodies that led me to examine the Beatles own work more closely. The Beatles often style parodied their contemporaries (famously the Byrds), but also a range of musical tropes from classical to contemporary, Sgt Peppers and the White Album are full of these. Paul and John got into the habit of writing "character" songs where the music was an accompaniment to the central characters story, a setting ripe for parodying C&W, blues, RnB, rocknroll, you name it. Much of the enjoyment is in recognising where those styles come from as well as the lyrics. Thus Rocky Raccoon or The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill or Piggies for instance, but also Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite !, Within You, Without You (of course its serious, but it's still a parody, wait why are they laughing at the end?), Magical Mystery Tour etc.

But parody isn't the only form of musical humour, just one of the more recognisable ones. Musical jokes are often of the purely aural kind. The Frere Jacques refrain in Paperback Writer , believe it or not is also a classical music joke back to Mahler's 1st Symphony where he makes it part of a funeral march! Yellow Submarine and Octopus's Garden has the funny underwater noises and voices. Blue Jay Way matches its lyrics with such magnificent dreariness typical of George's humour, and Only A Northern Song is full of silly noise jokes, and I think that's another less noticeable Goon influence there. You could probably excuse What's The New Mary Jane on the same grounds but I still find it mostly unlistenable 😀 A musical style can be inherently funny (see also Yankovich polkas and G&S), which is perhaps why the pompous nature of baroque music works for Piggies . We have to credit George Martin for much of this, he was a wizard at weaving musical jokes into Beatles songs. His idea to quote musical phrases into All You Need Is Love , for instance (with Paul helping out on the She Loves You joke), and of course the superb backing to Honey Pie which turns a jumped-up ukulele tin pan alley song into a big band piece. Or the melodramatic middle eight to When I'm Sixty-Four ending with the dotty turn-around. Think also of the backing to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, it has a few guffaws in the trumpets and an actual laugh track from Beyond The Fringe live shows. Once you start seeing the music this way, you may find it difficult to stop! 😀 Good Morning Good Morning mimics TV adverts, clomps along in a start-stop way like your day with jokey guitar solos blaring trumpets and ends in an animal race. And it doesn't matter who sang the Ahhs in ADITL, its the backup Ahhs that are funny, ok 😀 And the alarm clock and the panting after a bus. All the more impressive that they use such humour to contrast against the very serious things they are saying in those songs, and it's typical that the Beatles often chose to "take the edge off" that way.

Another way is the musical joke of anti-climax. You can probably think of half a dozen instances of this in Beatles music, from the serendipitous Her Majesty to more subtle forms like the Sgt Pepper run-out groove or the drum coda to Long Long Long, the fade-in and fade-out of the end of Happiness Is A Warm Gun or Ringo's finger blistered Helter Skelter - more funny noises there too. The White Album is a lot funnier viewed this way, its chock-full of jokes (something has to explain Wild Honey Pie , right). The very sequencing of Goodnight suggests such an anti-climax.

So to conclude this brief overview, there's a lot to Beatles musical humour. It's odd when you focus on an aspect of their work, and see how much there is, there's a lot I haven't mentioned or even gone into so add anything I've missed!

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28 July 2016
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Yet another magnificent performance from the renowned witmaster, ewe2! Bravo! 

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ewe2 said
All the more impressive that they use such humour to contrast against the very serious things they are saying in those songs, and it's typical that the Beatles often chose to "take the edge off" that way.

Yeah, one thing I've noticed too. They often wrote serious songs with light-hearted melodies, or serious-sounding songs with joke lyrics. 

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Sugarplum fairy

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28 July 2016
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Silly Girl noted
Yeah, one thing I've noticed too. They often wrote serious songs with light-hearted melodies, or serious-sounding songs with joke lyrics.   

Well spotted @Beatlebug, there was something niggling at me and that's what it was. This practice doesn't really have a name (it's fun to look up various attempts to name this kind of irony though!), my favourite example of this is The Police with Every Breath You Take. If you pay attention to the lyrics, that is!

Listen to What Goes On , there's a bouncy rockabilly tune, but oh dear, the singer's not very happy is he? Ringo seems to like that kind of thing, he wrote Don't Pass Me By which is a great singalong but also fairly morose. And there's John's classics of I'm A Loser and Help . There's undoubtedly more, it seems to be the more common form of lyrical dissonance. But then there's Fixing A Hole which seems a little gloomy for Paul, so does Your Mother Should Know . And do you think Tomorrow Never Knows sounds more hopeful lyrically than the music? How about the verses of All You Need Is Love , don't they sound droopy compared to the glass half-full lyrics? What others can you find?

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29 July 2016
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Yeah, one thing I've noticed too. They often wrote serious songs with light-hearted melodies, or serious-sounding songs with joke lyrics.   the Beatles often chose to "take the edge off" that way.

Good point!  I was recently listening to an old 'Desert Island Discs' interview with David Gilmour.  Kirsty Young was was suggesting that they (Floyd) liked to disguise dark lyrics behind a wonderful tune.  He agreed!  

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29 July 2016
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Sugarplum fairy said

Yeah, one thing I've noticed too. They often wrote serious songs with light-hearted melodies, or serious-sounding songs with joke lyrics.   the Beatles often chose to "take the edge off" that way.

Good point!  I was recently listening to an old 'Desert Island Discs' interview with David Gilmour.  Kirsty Young was was suggesting that they (Floyd) liked to disguise dark lyrics behind a wonderful tune.  He agreed!    

SOMEONE MENTIONED PINK FLOYD ahdn_george_08 *Christmas-morning face* 

a-hard-days-night-george-10

It's very true though-- [a long paragraph of off-topic Floydranting edited out for later discussion on a different board]

The song that brought it to my attention was actually Paul's post-Beatle 'Another Day ', which Silly Mum had heard and liked and never realised how depressive it is because she hadn't bothered to pay attention to the 'so saaaaaad, so saaaaaad' lyrics underneath the jaunty little tune. And when this topic came up, the irony sprang to mind, and I remembered remarking to myself once how contrasting the lyrics and melody of You Won't See Me are. (SUPER peppy tune, and quite dark lyrics-- 'I will lose my mind/ if You Won't See Me '-- a-hard-days-night-paul-4) I'm sure there are more examples out there, particularly if we go through some Solo Beatles (c'mon y'all, Let Em In! a-hard-days-night-george-10)

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29 July 2016
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Yes, if anything these tendencies are more pronounced than ever in their solo careers, but I wanted to avoid relying on those examples. Still, take your pick of George's frequently Goonish humour, Paul's love of ironic music/lyrics and dedication to deliberate "mistakes", Ringo's zany work, even John can't help making puns and hidden jokes through his solo work. It's definitely a part of their musical DNA.

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29 July 2016
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^^Hmm might be too easy. a-hard-days-night-paul-10

I just thought of a classic example of Paul's morbid humour-- Maxwell's Silver Hammer , of course! a-hard-days-night-john-6 I once showed it to a friend, saying, 'Here's one about a serial killer,' then watching with glee the dawning horror on his face as he exclaimed, 'Oh god, and it's cheerful!' paul-mccartney

ahdn_ringo_09

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5 January 2017
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Yes, you can definitely see The Goons influence on them, for example You Know My Name. I've always thought John sounded a lot like Bluebottle in the fourth part of the song.

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SgtPeppersBulldog said
Yes, you can definitely see The Goons influence on them, for example You Know My Name. I've always thought John sounded a lot like Bluebottle in the fourth part of the song.  

I like to think John became a voice actor in an alternate universe.  He was really good at doing goofy voices.  Especially in the Christmas Records.

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5 January 2017
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@SgtPeppersBulldog said
Yes, you can definitely see The Goons influence on them, for example You Know My Name. I've always thought John sounded a lot like Bluebottle in the fourth part of the song.  

That part always reminded me of the "unbirthday" scene from Alice In Wonderland. I get a tea party vibe from that section.

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Johns yelling in Yellow Submarine would have me howling as a little kid. It is their outrageous yet subtle british humor that shines through most in their music as well as in the studio. The jokes make the sessions far more fun to listen to. 

Also "Beatles Musical Humor" immediately makes me think of the piano playing in Cry Baby Cry , where the crazy yet appropriate piano playingechos the lyric about the Queen playing piano. That to me is humor told through music. 

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8 January 2017
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You've got something there, @owenladner plunky piano is a hallmark of their wit. I'm not entirely sure of the source of this, possibly Goons musical albums, or perhaps associations with novelty songs. Not just piano either: baroque harpsichord in Piggies to maniacal organ in Only A Northern Song , and that's just a couple of George's songs! Billy Preston playing horror chords in I Want You (She's So Heavy) makes it very difficult for me to keep a straight face when listening. The wacky piano in Lovely Rita , the unforgettable plunking and noodling in Don't Pass Me By , the list goes on. 

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8 January 2017
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@ewe2 Sexy Sadie also comes to mind. "You'll get yours yet" is followed by the wacky shaky piano section. The song also has a piano part that runs around in circles. And John's falsetto line at the end is completely insane. All of these aspects of the song come from the unique Beatles musical wit. 

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8 January 2017
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@ewe2, what about the ultra-rocky piano in Hey Bulldog , and the noodling on an organ at the end of I Wanna Be Your Man ? Would you agree with them being rather cool?

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9 January 2017
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I think we have to be careful to not see humour everywhere, keyboards were used unironically quite a lot. I'd say nay to Hey Bulldog , that has quite enough humour in it and the piano is more hard-hitting than funny, compare Baby You're A Rich Man . But the organ in I Wanna Be Your Man is a good example, a song they really regarded as a throwaway and so had a bit of fun with. I find the organ creepy but offset by the dotty bass in Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite

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9 January 2017
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One of my favorite funny bits is in Piggies - the little bluesy lick that comes right after "goes on around". To hear a harpsichord, that most unfunky of instruments play a part like that in the midst of all the chamber - music surroundings is absolutely ludicrous!

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I like the outros of Hey Bulldog and Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey where they're just speaking nonsense.

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