Dig A Pony - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

The ill-tempered and finally exhausting five months' work on The Beatles (aka The White Album) left the group in much the same mental limbo as had set in at the end of the Sgt. Pepper sessions the year before. Again McCartney took it upon himself to pull his colleagues together, this time suggesting that they reject the multilayered artifice, parodies, and game-playing of their post-touring studio work and 'get back' to their roots as a live rock-and-roll band. Not that he meant returning to touring, a suggestion he knew Harrison would dismiss out of hand, but rather a filmed one-hour eight-song concert, to be staged at The Roundhouse in Camden, North London (see [U96], note).

McCartney believed in live performance as a source of creative energy and missed the audience feedback he remembered from the group's early days. Because of this, some accounts unfairly represent him as boyishly badgering the others into something none of them wanted to do. Yet both Lennon and Harrison had recently enjoyed playing live - the former in The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus, the latter jamming with Californian musicians during a seven-week stay in Los Angeles - while Starr was amenable providing the project could be fitted round his forthcoming film-role in The Magic Christian. All, likewise, had enjoyed working on HAPPINESS Is A WARM GUN, which, because of its difficulties, had forced them to revive their ensemble playing skills. Indeed, when it came to taping their next album, it was (according to George Martin) Lennon rather than McCartney who insisted that the live/no-overdub regime be religiously adhered to.

The Beatles, in short, set out on what became the 'Get Back' fiasco with enthusiasm and more than a hint of late Sixties megalomania, rejecting The Roundhouse in favour of a Tunisian amphitheatre, or even an Atlantic liner. (At this point, Lennon was heard to mutter 'I'm warming to doing it in an asylum'.) It was only when they convened at Twickenham Studios to hammer out their concert set that they realised they were deluding themselves.

Working on HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN had been a special case - a stimulating challenge, but a tough one compared to idling by with edits and overdubs. Suddenly The Beatles found themselves faced with flogging through much the same process many times over. In effect, they had called their own bluff: this was too much like hard work for men with nothing to prove and no compelling financial reasons to put themselves through hoops [1]. Unfortunately the press had been notified and a film-crew hired in to shoot the proceedings. They had to do it - or at least pretend to. Their instinctive solution was to jam sporadically, sending the whole thing up, much as they did on loose nights in Abbey Road. This time, though, the meter was running: a film studio was rented and cameras were rolling. Driven by his ingrained work ethic and assumed burden of leadership, McCartney attempted to impose discipline on this devious disorder, but the others had had enough of his pedantic MD-ing and resented being drilled like schoolboys. (When he suggested that they were merely suffering from stage-fright, Lennon stared at him in stony disbelief.)

The truth was that they were adults and no longer adaptable to the teenage gang mentality demanded by a functional pop/rock group. Harrison yearned to be third guitarist in an easygoing American band, Starr was looking forward to being an actor, and Lennon, who a few months earlier had been simultaneously attacked as a sell-out by the revolutionary Left and busted by the forces of the establishment for possession of drugs, wanted to break the mould completely and confront the world with outré cultural subversions in company with Yoko Ono. (Sitting inscrutably beside him throughout these dispiriting sessions, she contributed to their failure, something of which she seemed uncharacteristically oblivious.)

For a while they struggled on, trying out a variety of new material, including several songs which later turned up on solo albums [2]. At length, Harrison snapped - McCartney having tried once too often to get him to play his guitar solo just so - and walked out. (He went straight home and commemorated the fracas in 'Wah-Wah', later recorded for All Things Must Pass.) A few days later, Ono, squatting symbolically on Harrison's blue cushion, began to wail in her patent Banshee fashion, whereupon the others, admitting themselves beaten, joined in with a barrage of screaming feedback. The 'rehearsals' and their associated concert were forthwith abandoned.

Retreating a week later to the basement of the Apple office in Savile Row, the ill-tempered group discovered to their horror that self-styled electronics genius 'Magic Alex' Mardas, an eccentric befriended by Lennon during his LSD period, had installed a '72-track console' that turned out to consist of an antique oscilloscope held together by a few planks of wood. Imperturbably stepping in, 'Uncle George' Martin negotiated the loan of an eight-track from Abbey Road, and work commenced on what was now to be a new album: one recorded, The Beatles insisted (attempting to retain some saving shred of their original plan) 'honestly' - meaning without edits or overdubs. Since such a scheme would involve amassing dozens of takes of every song until usable ones occurred, and since every minute of the awful process was to be filmed, this was a recipe for lingering disaster. Wisely, George Martin delegated sessions to his assistant Glyn Johns, and found more congenial things to do elsewhere.

The first song rehearsed and played/recorded at Apple was Lennon's DIG A PONY (alias 'All I Want Is You'). Later described by its author as garbage, it went through various incarnations before being taped live during the short concert The Beatles gave on their office roof top on Thursday 30th January 1969 - an event which stopped traffic in surrounding streets and ousted politics to make the lead story on lunchtime TV newscasts. This appearance, arranged at short notice, was a way of fulfilling the group's original plans for a live concert without the stress of painstaking rehearsals and a proper performance. McCartney's brainwave, it obliged the group to straighten up, as a result of which DIG A PONY is a real ensemble performance (with, perhaps, some minor touching up in the studio afterwards). The comically lumbering unison 3/4 riff is undemanding but, considering The Beatles had by then been playing into a stiff winter breeze for thirty minutes, they get their fingers around it with surprising ease and even a hint of swing. Starr halts the count-in to blow his nose, McCartney misses his falsetto harmony on the second chorus, Lennon complains that his fingers are too cold to hold down the chords - but their enjoyment is obvious [3].

The song itself is inconsequential fun with a lyric celebrating countercultural claims that society's old values and taboos were dead, that life was a game and art a free-for-all, and (especially) that words meant whatever the hell one wished them to. Suspect even in 1961, such whimsy was looking distinctly bedraggled by 1969, but enough people wanted it to be true to ensure that it survived in the minds of progressive educationalists for the next twenty years.


  1. Lennon announced in January 1969 that if Apple went on losing money at its present rate, he'd be bankrupt in six months. Yet while Apple was in a mess, it would have been impossible for a man with Lennon's mechanical royalties and performing rights to go bankrupt. Money was only an issue inasmuch as the group felt, justifiably, that they were owed a great deal more of it than they were getting - hence the recruitment of Allen Klein to sort out The Beatles' affairs. (See Norman, p. 379 et seq.)
  2. ALL THINGS MUST PASS and 'Isn't It A Pity' (on Harrison's first solo album All Things Must Pass); 'Every Night', 'Maybe I'm Amazed', 'That Would Be Something' (on McCartney's first solo album McCartney); 'Back Seat Of My Car' (on McCartney's second solo album Ram); CHILD OF NATURE ('Jealous Guy') and 'Give Me Some Truth' (on Lennon's second solo album Imagine). Another track was a short jam noted as 'Suzy Parker' credited to Lennon-Starkey-Harrison-McCartney.
  3. Glyn Johns has suggested (Carr, The Beatles At The Movies) that the picture of sullen disintegration painted by the Let It Be film is a misrepresentation based on director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's removal of footage giving a contrary impression. However, while The Beatles certainly perked up for the 'rooftop concert', neither Harrison, Starr, nor McCartney ('a horror story') have a good word to say about either the Twickenham or Apple interludes. Much of the ponderous false bonhomie of the group's banter on the surviving tapes of these sessions was clearly put on for the cameras. On the other hand, the exhilarating break-down take of I'VE GOT A FEELING issued on Anthology 3 proves that, at points during the ten days at Apple, the group's spirits and aspirations were genuinely high.

Posted: 16 aug 2013

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