A Tribute to Blues: A Closer Look at “Yer Blues”

By Alexandra Fileccia

Lennon used “Yer Blues” to mock British artists who tried to replicate the sound of the blues and failed. However, the Beatles composed this track honoring the genre of blues—rock and roll’s great ancestor. The band released “Yer Blues” in 1968 during the later years of their career. The song comments on the British Blues Boom. The title for the track hints at Lennon’s ridicule with the word “yer,” which means “your” in British slang. Lennon also wrote the song while in India to see if he could, in fact, write a blues song better than the “British Blues” songs that surrounded him, according to Walter Everett in his book The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology (170).

The second track on side two of the first disc of the White Album, “Yer Blues” captures a depressing and raw, emotional sound that makes the track unique. Lennon sings with enormous force, which makes the track stand out on the album and from the Beatles’ discography as a whole. “‘Yer Blues’ takes the frustrations of ‘I’m So Tired’ to an even deeper level,” Everett writes (170). Not every Beatles member recorded in the studio at one time, which accounts for the isolation of instruments and how distant they sound from each other. The space in the “blues lick” allows every band member “to piddle about without sounding busy,” (Riley, 277). The listener can hear each individual instrument very clearly. The separation of instruments creates a hollow sound for the song, which adds to the song’s uniqueness. Most Beatles’ songs sound full and bustling with different instruments, unless the track’s main focus lies in the acoustic guitar and vocals—think “Blackbird,” “Julia” or “I Will;” all acoustically-based songs though the latter actually builds up a little toward the end.

The raw, angsty emotion in Lennon’s voice rules as a major component of the blues track. Typically a blues song implies sadness, yet “Yer Blues” carries immense anger. The listener feels desperate, frustrated, lonely and angry at the same time—they feel the way Lennon feels. After Lennon counts the band in, the songs starts off with Lennon singing the chorus, “Yes I’m lonely, wanna die/Yes I’m lonely, wanna die/If I ain’t dead already/Girl, you know the reason why.” On the second line he holds out the “o” in “lonely” and pushes the “e” in “ evenin’” in the first verse, “In the morning, wanna die/In the evenin’, wanna die.” The blues and swinging blues as genres both play with vowel length in relation to tempo—a way to express individuality. The scratchiness of Lennon’s voice throughout the track displays great heartache and anguish. The song would be totally different if he sang the lyrics in a normal tone without all the wails and cries. The listener wouldn’t be able to feel as connected to the struggle Lennon sings about and goes through on the track. “Yer Blues” embodies a melancholy that only suicide can relieve, as the lyrics suggest.

Lennon references the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965) by Bob Dylan in the second vocal solo in the lyrics, “Feel so suicidal/Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones,” according to Tell Me Why by Tim Riley (278). In Dylan’s song, he sings to a character named Mr. Jones and Lennon shows a relation to that character. The primary song writer, Lennon, also sneaks in a reference in the third verse of “Yer Blues,” to “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937) by Robert Johnson, one of the most popular blues singers in the 1930s (Everett, 170). In “Hellhound,” Johnson sings, “I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving/Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail/Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail/And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.” Johnson’s lyrics discuss sadness so blue that it keeps hitting him like hail. Lennon’s lyric “Black cloud crossed my mind/blue mist round my soul” uses a similar description of sadness as Johnson’s lyrics. By referencing these great musicians before him, Lennon tips his hat as if saying, “These guys knew how to do blues.”

In “Yer Blues,” the Beatles bring forth an older style of music to a younger audience. Most of their audience probably hadn’t listened to blues music as much as the new genre of rock and roll the Beatles made popular. Lennon’s references to other musicians plays with demographics as a theme of rock and roll. Lennon acknowledges that other artists played this style before him and tips his hat to the inspirational artists. “Yer Blues” fills a generation gap that only few others, such as “Honey Pie,” succeed in doing.

During the third solo vocal break, the guitar switches from a slow blues to a swinging blues while Lennon sings, “Even hate my rock and roll.” During the verse, the bass lightens up a bit from the previous thick chugging. Then after a small drum fill, the original blues speed returns while Lennon sings the same opening chorus, which fades into the background. The song as a whole rocks harder than all the individual parts. The vocals may take majority of the focus in the beginning, however Lennon’s screeches fight back and forth between the drums and guitars, and eventually these instruments get their chance to shine. The instrumental bickering creates a sort of balance. Without all of the individual parts, the final product would not work. The guitar bends deserve as much praise as the fuzzy bass and the strained vocals.

In December of 1968, the Dirty Mac, a band comprised of John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, performed a live version of “Yer Blues” for the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus documentary. In the Dirty Mac’s version of the song, the guitar takes on a more prominent voice than in the original Beatles version, especially during the swinging section. Here, Clapton takes a longer solo and fills in spaces George Harrison left empty. Clapton’s guitar feels less tinny and distant than Harrison’s. The whole performance sounds more gritty and angsty than the original. The Dirty Mac successfully covered “Yer Blues” without skimping on the angry energy and raw emotion. At the end of the first verse, Lennon practically screams as he sings, “And you know what it’s worth,” which comes off more aggressive than in the original recording of the song. The rough, awkward transition from the swinging section to the end of the song seems to be the only downfall in the Dirty Mac’s cover. Ringo knows how to hit his drums in just the right way to signal the change back; Mitchell falters.

The song follows and repeats the same structural formula until the song hits the two minute, seven second mark, when the big transition happens. Like Neil A. Wynn writes in his book Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe, the vocals follow a standard blues format, with a repeated first line and a third line that rhymes with the first (186). The track stays at a constant overall sound, excluding the transition section—the fullest sounding part of “Yer Blues.” The repetition of structure in the verses, in addition to the shortness of the verses and lyrics, makes the song feel like it keeps going. Clocking in at about four minutes, the blues-inspired track stands a pretty long song for the Beatles.

No crazy or bizarre sound effects weave through the song, as do many of the other tracks on the White Album. The high distortion on the instruments makes it raw and gritty. “Yer Blues” doesn’t have the production feel of “Dear Prudence” or “Savoy Truffle.” The listener feels as if they sat in on a garage-band basement show. The lack of production experimentation in this song may appeal to an older audience. Older listeners may not feel so alienated by the “newfangled technology” that the Beatles famously experimented with during the years surrounding the release of the White Album. The only alienation may come from the heavy lyrics and “noisy,” fuzzy instruments.

The drums accentuate “Yer Blues” and play a major role in shaping the track’s bluesy feel. Ringo uses stop-time to showcase Lennon’s vocal solos, and then brings the piece together. The drumbeat drives the song and pushes it along. In addition, the drums bring everything together and make it feel whole even though the instruments sound separated and spacey. The drums answer the vocals during the verses/vocal solos creating a “call and response” feel—classic to blues songs. Ringo keeps a steady swing beat going on the cymbals during the transition, sort of nodding his head in acknowledgment to swing as an ancestor. The drums play an essential part, no matter how simple the rhythm.

As a tribute to the roots of rock and roll, “Yer Blues” acknowledges the past—the blues—and pulls the genre into modern times. Lennon not only makes fun of British artists who poorly reproduced the sound of blues, but also says, “This is how it’s done.” The composition of this track borrows from the blues vocabulary of techniques, such as call and response and individuality. The Beatles have long integrated blues style into their songs, however the simple yet driving drums combined with Lennon’s howls make “Yer Blues” a masterpiece of blues interpretation and a unique track in the Beatles’ discography. The song truly lives up to the blues standards set by musicians predating the Beatles.

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