Monday, January 4, 2010

The Beatles and musical history: "One After 909"

This is the Beatles song that took the longest to surface on an official recording (unless you count "I Lost My Little Girl"). "One After 909", as we can see, dates back to at least 1960, and wouldn't be properly recorded and released until a full decade later.

I've read that "One After 909" was John and Paul's attempt at a "train song". Trains are a popular subject in American music, and can be found in all sorts of early genres, including but not limited to folk, country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm 'n' blues, and rock 'n' roll. While I certainly haven't heard any songs about trains quite like "One After 909", I can't help but admit that it feels like a train song. Go figure.
According to one book I have, A Hard Day's Write, it was inspired by skiffle train songs, like Lonnie Donegan's version of "Rock Island Line". "Rock Island Line" is of course a HUGE folk song, first recorded by Lead Belly- a man who can be considered to be one of the roots of just about everything. Of course, "One After 909"- even in this early version- certainly became something more than skiffle.

This becomes especially obvious when you hear the second known recorded version, coming from a taped rehearsal at the Cavern Club in 1962. The song has taken on a more Chuck Berry-ish feel, and it certainly seems as though George has taken a liking to his new guitar's vibrato arm... his Gretsch Duo Jet, in case you're wondering. Clearly, the group has gone through the transformation caused by Hamburg already, being much tighter and more in the groove.

The Beatles finally got the song into the studio in 1963, but they never got through the entire song and abandoned it. But it's still clear- especially when you hear Anthology 1's convenient edited version- that the song has been further polished, without George's unnecessary flourishes. It's slower, sure, but it's got a solid groove that makes me like it best, out of all the versions there are.

The familiar rooftop concert version uses a completely different arrangement that shows that they started with a clean slate- or perhaps a foggy memory- and sort of wound up satirizing the song as they skipped down memory lane. Now that I think about it, the 1969 version here sounds almost cheesy the way they tear through it at such a fast tempo without any seriousness... I suppose Billy Preston's electric piano doesn't help much.

So... I guess skiffle-inspired rhythm 'n' blues train songs can be added to the list. See, I told you great music can't be put in a box!

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