The Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much”

Beatles-Its-All-Too-Much-770

You may be seeing more of these “from left field” Beatle posts here from time to time. They are bubbling up for the simple reason that, after a break of many decades, I am re-experiencing all their records. As a teenager and young adult, I absorbed them all and internalized them after scores (hundreds) of plays to the point where (as it does) the experience became exhausted for me. Then of course society went through several phases of technology. I’d had the records on vinyl and ditched the turntable sometime in the 90s. I never did get too very much into CDs, and over the past several years that medium too has become obsolete. Then it took me ages to get a smart phone, then ages after that to start putting tunes on it, and then ages after that to realize that it would OK to buy Beatles records since I hadn’t actually sat down and listened to any since half my lifetime ago.

And now since all that time has passed, I not only hear things in a new way (I hear a lot more), but I also now listen as a critic listens and feel like converting observations into words and sharing them for whatever they’re worth. Today, we write about a track from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, recorded in May 1967, unreleased until January 1969: “It’s All Too Much”.

In my youth, it was not one of my favorite Beatles recordings:  I always found the harsh opening sounds somewhat off-putting, and the track is VERY muddy, one of the muddiest mixed of all Beatle songs,  and while I usually embrace that very thing, in this case it so extreme one is tempted to write it off as a sludgy sea of noise. Perhaps this is a case where re-mastering and digital conversion has made it easier to hear, but I’m not an expert. All I know is now I can hear its different elements and appreciate the track’s unique virtues.

One thing that stands out is that it is very uncharacteristic. The Beatles were always processing and appropriating new sounds, but normally it would go into the sausage-maker and come out with a bit of polish as a “song”. But sometimes they would just jam and distill the thing into a track. “Helter Skelter” is a famous example of that. And while the core of this song is a very sweet, catchy refrain by George Harrison, it’s buried under tons of noise and experimentation.

It’s all about the acid of course. The cosmic lyrics reflect it (ironically it isn’t about transcendental meditation yet so much, that phase began in a big way a few months later). But the sound reflects it even more. The Beatles had seen Jimi Hendrix and Procul Harum (separately) in live performance mere hours before they recorded the track, and those influences are keenly felt. It also sounds like other stuff (often hard, loud stuff) that was going on in London at the time: Pink Floyd, the Who and the Rolling Stones, then in the midst of Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. (The obnoxiousness of the guitar here reminds me a little of the Stone’s earlier “Please Go Home”). There is a theory that the distorted, feedbacky guitar on this was played not by Harrison but by McCartney, whom (ironically) was capable of being much freer and more experimental on the guitar than Harrison was. And Harrison was after all doing that drone on the organ.

The other thing that sticks out like a sore thumb — jumped right out at me on my first play after all these years — is the brass section that George Martin sticks in. On the one hand it feels kind of wrong, the trumpets sort of don’t belong in this drugged out, harsh rock jam. On the other hand they do belong there — for they remind us (after several minutes of fuzz) that we are listening to the Beatles, and that this is ostensibly a pop record, and granny will be listening to it along with the kids. That type of “catholic” mainstream popularity was kind of the whole point of the Beatles (which was what Lennon ended up hating about what the group eventually became). Harrison hated the horns but I like them, especially at the end, when they start to go into “The Prince of Denmark’s March”. There is also a bass clarinet in there, but its effects are much subtler and more in tune with the spirit of what the Beatles are doing on their instruments.

I do think George Martin “fixed” many a Beatles track, found ways to increase their palatability. For example, when I listen to the unfinished Lennon song “What’s the New Mary Jane?” — to me, it feels like it needs something. What would save it? George Martin and his orchestra would fill it out – – make a track of it, and then we would find that it could sit comfortably alongside a finished track like “I Am the Walrus.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

And the last element, at the end the whole thing goes into a hypnotic chant, very similar to the one of the end of “All You Need is Love” (recorded a month later), a wall of noise, a break-down with the classical horns coming in and the Beatles throwing in a snatch of lyric from a song called “Sorrow”, covered by the Merseys in 1966 (“With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue.”)

Now, here’s something even more interesting. The version of this song most of us know off the album is a little over 6 minutes long. Here’s the original 8:20 version, which includes another verse and chorus and lots of different things in the long fade out, as Lennon and McCartney in the background gradually change from “Too Much” to “Tuba”….or something.

Anyway, this is another one I can set on repeat and space out to for lengthy periods:

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