Having been in bands of all sorts for the past – too many – years, there are those times when everything just kind of hits a wrong chord. Even with great musicians and great songs, sometimes the performance, well, it just kind of sits there and stares at you like a stuffed animal. Those moments can be incredibly tough to get around in the studio while you’re recording what you thought was going to be your break-out single. They are even tougher when you’re performing live and doing everything right and somehow, it doesn’t matter. The entire audience is looking at you like you just ran over their cat before you stepped on stage.
Every singer and musician has had those moments and you never really understand what just happened. From personal experience I can say that for equally mysterious reasons, the next studio session or show is almost always a mad, blow-out, crazy success. And, you don’t know what it is that you did differently from one to the other. The trick that you learn over the years, is to never have those “bad days.” Part of the solution is getting better at your craft of course – with competence comes confidence – but even when you’re part of something really wonderful and great, there are still bad days. (Just far fewer of them.)
So, if you happen to be a member of the biggest band in the world and after several long years of madness on a day to day basis, you tend to get kind of burned out on the whole thing as wonderful as it it.
By 1968, The Beatles had been on the top for longer than anyone could have imagined possible and the pressure within the band was only increasing. During the recording sessions for what would become the “White Album,” the guys – if they spoke at all – would be constantly bickering and arguing. All in all a very unpleasant experience for all concerned. As usual The Beatles produced another classic, if rambling, album of material and there was also this side project hanging over their heads. A movie commitment to United Artists for what would become Yellow Submarine.
Given the tension and complete lack of interest shown in the project by Paul, John, George and Ringo, they decided to shuffle off songs that Paul and John weren’t really interested in or ones that they felt were not good enough to be on a “proper” Beatles album release. George Harrison’s “Only A Northern Song” was his personal response to the shift in the way The Beatles were doing business.
“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play
What words I say or time of day it is
As it’s only a Northern song.”
(With both Lennon/McCartney and Harrison’s music being published by Northern Songs at the time, it was not – subtle.)
But there was at least one day during those recording sessions when things calmed down enough for the old band from a few years earlier to emerge at least for a while.
The video for “Hey Bulldog” is a composite of that session and others for what was to be a video for “Lady Madonna.” And however it came about, it was a rare time in those days for The Beatles that they really seemed to be having a blast!
It shows in the performance as Lennon’s new song seemed to really have struck the right mood for everyone in the band.
“Sheepdog, standing in the rain
Bullfrog, doing it again
Some kind of happiness is measured out in miles
What makes you think you’re something special when you smile?”
Based around Lennon’s piano riff, “Hey Bulldog” is a wild ride. All four Beatles are having a great time getting around Lennon’s typically either cryptic – or nonsensical – lyrics.
Harrison’s guitar is about as aggressive as he ever got with The Beatles. His lead line is initially following Lennon’s piano during the intro and verse before delightfully running off the rails with a solo that flows seamlessly from the bass end matching Lennon’s piano to a screaming over the top fling way up in the stratosphere that had never been explored in their music before. It’s a sign of what Harrison is really becoming capable of as a guitar player.
Ringo, the forever and unfairly underrated Ringo, is also on a tear. He’s all over his drum kit from snare to tom-toms and back again pounding the crap out of the chorus. Even McCartney’s bass is on a musical high in “Hey Bulldog.” He starts out keeping things solid and just slightly ahead of the beat adding some tension to verse before jumping into a run of slides on the chorus that give “Hey Bulldog” it’s own heartbeat.
And then there’s the vocals…
Lennon’s lyrics may or may not mean much of anything. If you follow them all the way through, it may have been a stab at McCartney, and given the time in The Beatles’ history, it may well have been. But, if it was, it was ignored at the time.
“Big man (Yea), Walking in the park
Whigwam, frightened of the dark
Some kind of solitude is measured out in you
You think you know me but you haven’t got a clue.”
And that was certainly for the better as “Hey Bulldog” may have been consigned to the Yellow Submarine movie project – from which it was cut – but it was a moment when the four lads from Liverpool were able to get past all the pressure and problems for a few hours and create something quite wonderful. For the last minute of “Hey Bulldog” Lennon and McCartney are goofing around, yelling and screaming, and barking at each other as the young men they were a few years before all the pressures of being a “Beatle” started to become overwhelming. For those few hours, they were having fun!