Come Together - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

Lennon's return to Abbey Road on 9th July for the start of work on MAXWELL'S SILVER HAMMER represented his first contribution to Abbey Road since a guitar part on YOU NEVER GIVE ME YOUR MONEY two months earlier. For the next fortnight he appears to have done nothing more, having finished no new songs since THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO in April [l]. Instead, most of his energy seems to have been devoted to importing a bed into the studio so that his wife, more seriously injured than him in their Scottish car-crash at the end of June, could survey proceedings and lend him moral support. (She had a microphone suspended over her pillow so that she could pipe up if she had anything to say.) Finally, he kick-started himself by messing about with an old Chuck Berry number, 'You Can't Catch Me', unwisely leaving part of Berry's lyric ('Here come old flat-top') in the resulting song [2].

With its sex-political title, COME TOGETHER constitutes the last of Lennon's espousals of the counterculture while still in the group [3]. Exhortatory/pontifical in the style of his early post-Beatles songs [4], it pitches a stream of self-confessed 'gobbledygook' at the violent antagonisms of an unenlightened world, implying that the language deployed in such confrontations is a trap and a potential prison. Later taken up by separatist feminists (arguing that the trap and the prison were male creations), this idea was at the cutting edge of alternative politics in late 1969.

Nothing else on Abbey Road matches the Zeitgeist-catching impact of Lennon's cover-breaking announcement, after two verses of faintly menacing semi-nonsense: 'One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.' The freedom invoked here differs from previous revolutionary freedom in being a liberation from all forms and all norms, including left-wing ones. In COME TOGETHER, the personal preamble to JULIA is propelled into the public sphere and elevated to the level of (anti-)ideology: a call to unchain the imagination and, by setting language free, loosen the rigidities of political and emotional entrenchment. As such, the song pursues a theme consistent in Lennon's work since I AM THE WALRUS - one partly originating in his LSD-enhanced outsider mentality and partly imbibed from the prevailing countercultural atmosphere of anti-Úlitism as defined by pundits as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Janov, R. D. Laing, and Herbert Marcuse.

The archetype of countercultural anti-politics as presented in COME TOGETHER was the head-gaming hippie sage: a bewildering guru/shaman modeled on Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Carlos Castaneda's fictional Don Juan, and 'trickster' figures like Mullah Nasruddin and the Zen masters of the Orient. An amalgam of these (with perhaps a dash of cartoonist Robert Crumb's lampoon Mr Natural), the character presented in Lennon's lyric has 'juju eyeball(s)' which suggest the cover of Dr John the Night Tripper's pseudo-voodoo album Gris-Gris, released in 1968 and a big hit in Britain's student/underground circles [5]. By verse three, Old Flat-top has metamorphosed into Lennon himself, with asides - 'sideboard(s)' - from Yoko Ono, a reference to her characteristic stance in their interviews. ('Spinal cracker' may refer to the traditional practice of Japanese women of walking on their prone husband's backs to loosen muscular tension and keep the spine supple.)

Again suggesting the influence of Dr John (and, more distantly, that of The Band), the song, a D blues shifting to the relative minor for its chorus, adopts the then-new American 'laid-back' or 'spaced-out' style, in which a stoned laziness of beat and a generally low-profile approach offered a cool proletarian alternative to middle-class psychedelic artifice. The associated drugs in this case were cocaine and heroin (and later the powerful tranquillisers known as quaaludes) [6]. Implicit was a passive, observing state of mind perfectly caught in the cloudy white tone of Lennon's double-tracked guitar solo and McCartney's brilliantly idiomatic bass and piano, particularly in his wonderfully poised two-bar envoi to the solo. (Lennon, stingy with his praise, was rightly effusive about his partner's playing here.) A slightly murky mix completes this - for The Beatles - very unusual sound picture [7].

Enthusiastically received in campus and underground circles, COME TOGETHER is the key song of the turn of the decade, isolating a pivotal moment when the free world's coming generation rejected established wisdom, knowledge, ethics, and behaviour for a drug-inspired relativism which has since undermined the intellectual foundations of Western culture.

Notes:

  1. Apart from 'Give Peace A Chance', taped on lst June at the Hotel Reine-Elizabeth in Montreal and issued a month later as the debut of the Plastic Ono Band. (Lennon credited 'Give Peace A Chance' to Lennon-McCartney in return for his partner's help in recording THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO.)
  2. In 1973 Berry's publishers sued Lennon who settled out of court, agreeing to record three of their songs (Berry's 'You Can't Catch Me' and SWEET LITTLE SIXTEEN, and Lee Dorsey's 'Ya Ya') on his Rock 'n' Roll LP.
  3. The phrase was coined by Timothy Leary as a campaign slogan for his planned campaign against Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California in 1969. Leary asked Lennon to write him a campaign song and, surprisingly, in view of the latter's disenchantment with Leary's psychedelic proselytising, he agreed to try, this song being the result. (lmplacably opposed to LSD, Reagan saw to it that his challenger was denied bail on a marijuana charge and kept in the Orange County Jail for the duration of the election.)
  4. 'Give Peace A Chance', 'Power To The People', 'Imagine', 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World', 'Happy Christmas (War Is Over)', and so on.
  5. Otherwise known as New Orleans session pianist Mac Rebennack, Dr John took his name from a dual allusion to his mentor Professor Longhair (Roy Byrd) and The Beatles' DAY TRIPPER. The cover of Gris-Gris shows him superimposed on a nocturnal scene in the swamps of the Louisiana bayoux. In the title track, his juju/voodoo persona claims to 'fly through the smoke'. According to McCartney, Lennon asked him to make his electric piano 'very swampy and smoky' - cf. the final verse's associational link with 'muddy water' and 'mojo filter'. Bluesman Muddy Waters' most famous song was 'I Got My Mojo Working'. (A mojo is a voodoo charm - although, to addicts, it may also mean any narcotic; usually morphine.) S5
  6. Depressed by their media vilification, Ono's miscarriage, and a doctor's (unwarranted) opinion that Lennon had made himself sterile by drug and alcohol abuse, the couple had recently become heroin addicts.
  7. Semi-audible, Lennon is whispering 'Shoot me' on the first beats of the first four bars. (Lewisohn, Sessions, p. 181.)

Posted: 24 mei 2009

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