Thursday, November 1, 2018

The White Album 50 Project: "Cry Baby Cry"

John Lennon told official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies that he'd gotten a slogan from an advertisement that went "Cry baby cry, make your mother buy," and he thought he could make a song out of it.  That song made it onto the White Album, and it's the last song John would ever write under the influence of Victorian children's literature.  
"Cry Baby Cry" is a sly little song that presents a social satire in the form of a deceptively fanciful nursery rhyme.  Based on "Sing a Song of Sixpence," John's song starts out painting a quaint picture of a king and queen who engage in activities designed to please others, like the king making breakfast for the queen while she plays piano for their children.  The music starts off as sweetly as the words, the sound dominated by an acoustic guitar, light piano and, courtesy of George Martin, a harmonium.  The elders of this royal family of the fictional country of Marigold, though, are utterly clueless, living in their own little bourgeois bubble without a care in the world and involving themselves in irrelevant activities.  As "Cry Baby Cry" continues, Paul McCartney's bass and Ringo Starr's drums and percussion become pushier, coming down hard at the conclusion at each line.  George Harrison's lead guitar gets especially biting as John snidely observes the duchess of Kirkcaldy (an actual town in Scotland) being tardy for tea time while her husband has issues - "problems" - at a local pub.  
The last verse of "Cry Baby Cry" finds these silly adults gathered around the table for a seance with the children exploiting their silly beliefs and practices by pretending to be spirits from the great beyond - "voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children . . . for a lark!"  The music has gotten more vicious, not only making clear the same contempt John has for the stuffy ruling classes that George displayed in "Piggies" (albeit with greater subtlety here), but also illuminating the paranoia the ruling classes have toward the younger generation.  "As a metaphor for the fear the youth culture's sounds instilled in their parents," Tim Riley wrote in "Tell Me Why," "'Cry Baby Cry' is an underrated Lennon royalty satire;  it's his most accomplished Lewis Carroll pastiche."
And it's also inspired rather novel counterculture art, like the late Alan Aldridge's illustration of the song.
I don't get it either.
The verses revolve around the refrain of "Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh, she's old enough to know better - so cry baby cry." Each recitation of the refrain seems to have more bite, and the beat is more pronounced here than in the verses.  The message of the refrain lyric is obvious: Mum can't be bothered with her kid's tantrums after having seen adults purporting to be her superiors romp through the landscape making fools of themselves.  So trouble your mother all you want, little baby; she's seen it all.
Such a sophisticated song would be a feather in the cap of any pop songwriter, but John actually disliked "Cry Baby Cry" so much that he denied having written it.  ("Not me," he said of the song in  1980, "a piece of rubbish.")  But it's a clever song in so many ways, particularly with how the vocal and the music begin simultaneously and, apart from a piano echo, end together definitively.  And just like that, the song is over.
Except that it isn't.
The Beatles throw in an unexpected song fragment after the moment of silence that follows the dying moment of "Cry Baby Cry."  Conceived by Paul, it's a subdued tune with lyric a along the lines of "Can you take me back where I came from?".  Paul's vocal sounds apparitional, and the light percussion adds to the sense of unease.  Is it a coda to "Cry Baby Cry," with Paul wishing to return to childhood innocence? Or is it a preamble to the White Album's next track, the sonic collage "Revolution 9" - a request from the Beatles to go back to the primordial understanding of music as the art of sound?  It's neither, of course.  As we already know, it's an excerpt of the nineteenth take of Paul's ballad "I Will," an improvisation Paul came up with when at a loss for how to proceed with the song he was working on with John and Ringo (who played percussion) - which, you'll remember, I first mentioned in August when I wrote about "I Will" itself.
So why is this song improvisation here?  Here's my explanation, which I admit may be the wrong answer (but I doubt it).  See, as noted before on this blog, John and Paul (below) agreed when they were compiling the White Album that neither one of them should have more than two tracks in a row, yet they somehow ended up with side four having three consecutive tracks at the end that were composed by John.  To avoid running afoul of the aforementioned sequencing rule, this ad-lib from Paul was inserted between two of those last three tracks.  The ad-lib, I might add, was taped long after "Cry Baby Cry" and "Revolution 9" were finished.
But it's not entirely random that a piece of "I Will," Take 19 (yeah, yeah, I know, I'll take nineteen what?) ends up being the extra recording that breaks up John's domination of side four.  There were other improvisations from Paul from the "I Will" session that could have been used.  This one befits the unsettled mood of side four, with its songs about revolution, the aftereffects of overindulgence, and royal seances; Paul's pleas to return to from whence he came suggests a wandering soul looking for a place to rest.
Beatles author Dave Rybaczewski adds an interesting perspective on how "I Will," Take 19 fits in.  "This section works nicely here," he writes,  "especially because the beat coincidentally is the same as the body of the song we just heard. It also creates a creepy atmosphere that leads perfectly into the cacophony of sound that follows it on the album."
As for the ad-libbed song itself, it's a look into how Paul's mind works and how effortlessly he comes up with song ideas.  It also demonstrates, alas, how he doesn't follow through on enough of his ideas.  He could have written a masterpiece of a song based on the idea of returning to where one came from (a challenge accepted by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood when they wrote the classic title song for Stewart's Gasoline Alley album).  But it's still an intriguing bit piece, operating like a link in much the same way as "Wild Honey Pie" does on side one. And as Tim Riley pointed out, it shows how the Beatles were so prolific in 1968 that they could come up with more material than is necessary for a double album.   
Here's the full Take 19 of "I Will."

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