Editor’s Note: An intriguing little book called When We Find Ourselves In Times of Trouble recently crossed our desk. It breaks down the lyrics and backstories of some songs by the Beatles and was written as a tool to uplift our mood during the last pandemic years. As tough times linger on, we share some excerpts to get 2022 off on the right foot. Happy New Year!
I’m a lifelong Beatles fan. Late in March of 2020, the deadly pandemic ravaged the nation also reeling from bitter political, social, and racial divisions. I wanted to do something that could give my family and friends at least momentary respites from the worry and stress and uncertainty that everyone was experiencing. We all were coping with one of the nation’s most significant times of trouble in a century.
The music of the Beatles was that respite…I began to email a daily Beatles “uplift” to family and close friends. The list grew organically and the daily messages not only became something around which I organized my own cloistered pandemic existence but also seemed to be appreciated by the recipients as a bright spot in their own sequestered days. [The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity].
“Here Comes the Sun” (Abbey Road)
The Beatles’ 1968 meditation retreat at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India was a very creative time musically, as more than a dozen songs that eventually ended up on the double White Album were written there. In fact, at that time and for the following year the group’s interpersonal relationships were deteriorating, with Lennon and McCartney spending more time writing independently rather than collaboratively. This dynamic continued all the way to the rancorous Let It Be sessions, which occurred in early 1969, before the sessions and release of Abbey Road.
Add to that the messy business dealings with the Beatles’ new label, Apple, and the ongoing relegation of George Harrison’s own songwriting to a back seat behind that of Lennon/McCartney, and you have the context for the creation of “Here Comes the Sun” by Harrison in early 1969.
Harrison was frustrated in multiple ways and decided to play hooky from an Apple business meeting to spend a little time at his friend Eric Clapton’s country home in Ewhurst, Surrey. He later said in the Beatles’ Anthology that the relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful.
At Clapton’s house, he woke up early, got one of Clapton’s acoustic guitars, took a walk in his gardens, and wrote “Here Comes the Sun” on the spot. Whether the tension and frustration can be directly credited with the creation of the song, “Here Comes the Sun” has become one of the most beloved of all Beatles songs.
The song led off the B-side of Abbey Road, and it showcased one of the first Moog synthesizers that George had obtained. Although the Beatles had stopped touring in 1966, it was performed at the 1971 benefit concerts for Bangladesh that George had hastily organized.
And for us, enduring the “long, cold, lonely winter” of doing our best during times of trouble, clinging to George’s hopeful message that the sun will return and that our lives again will be “all right,” is a ray of hope. Do take care of yourselves and those around you.
“Getting Better” (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
McCartney and Lennon co-wrote this, which featured some of the same kind of duality evident in “Hello, Good-Bye.” McCartney’s upbeat verse was inspired by “it’s getting better all the time,” a favorite phrase of Jimmie Nicol, the drummer who filled in during Ringo’s illness during the 1964 world tour. While writing, John Lennon tossed in, “It couldn’t get no worse.” This reflected their quite different personalities, and McCartney pointed out to his biographer, Barry Miles, for Many Years from Now:
“I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John… It was one of the ways we’d write. I’d have the song quite mapped out and he’d come in with a counter- melody, so it was a simple ordinary song.”
Indeed, despite the title and the spritely tone of the song, the partnership was not just about counter-melodies. There is some anger and even violence present in the lyrics, especially in the middle eight contributed by Lennon. Paul continued to Barry Miles: “It’s an optimistic song. I often try and get on to optimistic subjects in an effort to cheer myself up and also, realizing that other people are going to hear this, to cheer them up too. And this was one of those. The ‘angry young man’ and all that was John and I filling in the verses about school teachers. We shared a lot of feelings against teachers who had punished you too much or who hadn’t understood you or who had just been bastards generally.”
And John Lennon opened up quite a bit about his contribution to the song, and about himself, to his biographer, David Sheff, who wrote in All We Are Saying: “All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
A violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence — that’s quite an admission. During our own challenging times, even dark times, we can keep learning and growing and moving forward with integrity. We are capable of being our best selves, “doing the best that we can.”
“All Things Must Pass” (Anthology 3)
This is a bit of a cheat, because this George Harrison song not only was included in his own individual triple album set in 1970 but also was the title track. He had written it in 1968 and recorded a demo of it early in 1969, but it did not appear on either the Let It Be or Abbey Road albums. Much later, however (1996), it was included in one of the several compilation albums of Beatles songs, Anthology 3.
As was the case with George’s song “The Inner Light,” the source of the lyrics may have been the Tao Te Ching. One translation of this section of the Tao was included in Timothy Leary’s (yes, that Timothy Leary, of LSD fame) 1966 book Psychedelic Prayers After the Tao Te Ching in a section headed “All Things Pass”:
All things pass
A sunrise does not last all morning
All things pass
A cloudburst does not last all day
In an interview for Billboard Magazine, George speculated on another source of the material after he’d spent time with Bob Dylan and The Band in upstate New York after returning from the ashram in India: “I think I got [the title] from Richard Alpert/Baba Ram Dass, but I’m not sure. When you read of philosophy or spiritual things, it’s a pretty widely used phrase. I wrote it after [the Band’s 1968] Music from Big Pink album; when I heard that song in my head I always heard Levon Helm singing it!”
The notion of “All Things Must Pass,” can be, I hope, an encouragement to all of us as we soldier ahead through our own difficult times.
Photo: The Beatles (Getty Images)