Written by John Lennon while in India, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ recalled the nursery rhymes of his childhood.
According to Hunter Davies’ authorised 1968 book on The Beatles, the song was, like ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, partly inspired by a television commercial.
I’ve got another one here, a few words, I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance. Sometimes I know I’ve let a few things slip away, which I could have caught if I’d been wanting something.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
The song was completed in India, and the group recorded a demo at George Harrison’s Esher house in May 1968.
Lennon was later dismissive of ‘Cry Baby Cry’, describing it in 1980 as “a piece of rubbish”. The song’s most obvious debt was to the nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’, with which it shares a number of lyrical themes:
Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!
The ominous descending chords take Lennon’s song somewhere darker than the rhyme, as does the final verse’s mention of seances, voices and midnight pranks.
On the White Album, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ was followed by Paul McCartney’s ‘Can You Take Me Back?’, an ad-libbed song recorded during the 16 September 1968 session for ‘I Will’. Although unrelated to ‘Cry Baby Cry’, the songs are often classed as one.
2006’s Love album featured ‘Can You Take Me Back?’ as a transitory piece. It was billed as ‘Cry Baby Cry’, although none of Lennon’s song was included.
In the studio
The Beatles began recording ‘Cry Baby Cry’ on 15 July 1968. They filled four 30-minute tapes with unnumbered rehearsal takes, which were wiped during the following two sessions.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
On 16 July the group recorded 10 takes. The rehearsals evidently paid off: although it lacked overdubs, take one – released in 1996 on Anthology 3 – wasn’t significantly different from the final version.
The tenth take was the one selected for further work. The basic track – vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, organ and drums – received harmonium and piano overdubs later in the session.
Abbey Road’s long-serving balance engineer Geoff Emerick, who had made invaluable contributions to The Beatles’ music since Revolver, stopped working with the group during the 16 July session as a result of the ongoing tensions.
I lost interest in the White Album because they were really arguing among themselves and swearing at each other. The expletives were really flying… I said to George [Martin], ‘Look, I’ve had enough. I want to leave. I don’t want to know any more.’ George said, ‘Well, leave at the end of the week’ – I think it was a Monday or Tuesday – but I said, ‘No, I want to leave now, this very minute.’ And that was it.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
With Ken Scott taking Emerick’s place, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ was completed on 18 July 1968. John Lennon recorded new lead vocals, along with backing vocals, more harmonium, tambourine and further percussion.
The song was mixed for mono and stereo on 15 October, during which the acoustic guitar beginning was given its distinctive flanging effect.
‘The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey’
Lennon again uses the same nursery rhyme in 1980. The lyrics of Clean Up Time, the third song of the Double Fantasy album (1980),go:
The Queen is in the counting house,
counting out the money.
The King is in the kitchen
Making bread and honey…
A slight altering. In Lennons version, the male person is the housekeeper, while the wife is doing big business.
I wonder, are these lines (in both songs) about Lennons hidden desire to be ‘only’ a houseman and a father and a husband?
Fact is, he was making bread and honey, and doing nothing much more, in the mid-Seventees, wasn’t he, and it was (quote:) “the happiest time of my life”…
Before I forget: Great songs, both!