Wednesday, April 6, 2016

TMFW 135 - 4000 Holes and 1 Mean Letter

Late last year, I was REALLY excited to discover a great piece of music history related to the Beatles' classic song "A Day in the Life." And after a little bit more research, now is the right time to tell the story.

This week last year, the Royal Albert Hall in London tweeted and posted to its website a 1967 letter from the venue to The Beatles' late manager (and Fifth Beatle) Brian Epstein.  As the post explains, the letter "was unearthed whilst clearing an old archive room as part of the Hall’s ongoing steam heating refurbishment project."

The letter is an objection "in the strongest conceivable terms" to The Beatles name-checking the Hall in the final verse of "A Day in the Life":

I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I'd love to turn you on

That lyric doesn't make a lot of sense - Blackburn, Lancashire is over 200 miles northwest of London, after all - and the stodgy managers at the Hall were apparently concerned that listeners would draw the wrong conclusions.

Writing for the Hall, its then Chief Executive Ernest O'Follipar complained that "[i]n the lyric that mentions the Albert Hall, the singer (thought to be John Lennon) heavily implies several gross inaccuracies which we consider to be misleading to the general public who may hear the song, and potentially catastrophic to our reputation - one which has taken almost a century to achieve."  The letter went on to object to three specific inaccuracies: (1) that there are four thousand holes in the Royal Albert Hall, (2) that the Royal Albert Hall is located in Blackburn, Lancashire, and (3) that the singer would "love to 'turn on' the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences." 

O'Follipar was particularly concerned about the four thousand holes allegation, noting that "it is likely to deter concertgoers who do not want to fall into a hole," and that "I am also baffled as to where this figure has come from - even if you count the doorways as holes, that would still only make thirty-two."

The letter ends with suggested changes to the lyrics, which promote the Royal Albert Hall's then-upcoming season of shows. In the alternative, the Hall suggested that perhaps Ringo could add backing vocals that "contradict John Lennon's lies," suggesting "Not that there are any holes in the auditorium, John!"

In addition to the letter, the Albert Hall's post includes a response from John Lennon in which he blows off the hall's geographic concerns and pokes fun at them by noting "we won't be saying sorry, because it takes too long to get to Blackburn from our studio at Abbey Road."

Being a Beatles fan and the writer of a weekly music trivia blog, as noted above I was thrilled when I happened upon the letter from the Royal Albert Hall.   Even without 49 years of history and hindsight, it is so silly to think that someone could have taken that lyric so seriously and reacted in that way.  And it was amazing that a no-name like Ernest O'Follipar would go so far as to suggest alternate lyrics to John Lennon.  "What a great entry this will make," I thought.  "I can't believe this wasn't a bigger story when it came out," I thought.  "It's almost too good to be true," I thought.  

Then finally, I saw the date of the Albert Hall's blog post.  April 1.  It turns out the whole thing was an April Fools' joke. And it was a thinly disguised one at that - O'Follipar is an anagram of "April Fool."  

Well done, Royal Albert Hall, and shame on me.


BONUS FACT (A REAL ONE):  So what does that lyric "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" mean?  Well, it turns out John Lennon really did "read the news today" when he wrote that song, and he cherry-picked a few stories and molded the verses around them.  One of the newspaper stories was about the abundance of potholes on the streets in Blackburn.  

According to the book The Complete Beatles Songs by Steve Turner (which sits on my coffee table), the story "was picked from the Near and Far column" in the January 17, 1967 edition of the Daily Mail.  As for the reference to the Royal Albert Hall, John was stuck looking for a rhyme to "rather small," and an old schoolmate of his suggested "Albert Hall."  It fit, so it made the grade.

BONUS FACT 2:  "A Day in The Life" features an abrupt musical/lyrical shift in the middle, from John Lennon's dreamy contemplations to Paul McCartney's boppy rundown of his morning (i.e. "woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...")

If those two parts sound a bit incongruous, it's because they are: to make "A Day in the Life," John stuck one of his unfinished songs together with one of Paul's.  That the two half-conceived songs meshed so beautifully and turned into such a monumental track is Exhibit 792 of The Beatles' genius.

BONUS FACT 3:  On the subject of musical letters, one of my favorite blogs Letters of Note recently had a wonderful (and real) letter from the famous comic book artist Robert Crumb to the Swedish "free jazz" saxophone player Mats Gustafsson.  Apparently, Gustafsson was a great admirer of Crumb's and sent Crumb one of his records in appreciation.

Crumb was not impressed with what he heard, and pulled no punches in a letter back to Gustafsson.  He started the note by saying "I gotta tell you, on the cover of the CD of your sax playing, which is black and has no text on it, I wrote in large block letters, in silver ink, 'Torturing The saxophone—Mats Gustafsson.'"  

Crumb went on from there: "I just totally fail to find anything enjoyable about this, or to see what this has to do with music as I understand it, or what in God´s name is going on in your head that you want to make such noises on a musical instrument. Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it. I had to take it off long before it reached the end. I just don´t get it. I don’t understand what it is about."

For his part, Gustafsson seemed quite pleased with the critique from Crumb.  So much so that he named his next record Torturing the Saxophonewith the title in large block letters in silver ink.  I love that.

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