Blue Jay Way
|"Blue Jay Way"|
|Song by the Beatles from the album Magical Mystery Tour|
|Released||27 November 1967 (US) (LP)
8 December 1967 (UK) (EP)
|Recorded||6–7 September, 6 October 1967|
|Magical Mystery Tour track listing|
"Blue Jay Way" is a song written by George Harrison and recorded by the Beatles. It was released in 1967 on the band's Magical Mystery Tour album and EP. The song is named after a street in Hollywood where Harrison stayed in August 1967, and the lyrics document his waiting for friends to find their way there through fog-ridden Los Angeles. As with several of Harrison's compositions from this period, "Blue Jay Way" incorporates aspects of Indian classical music, although the Beatles used only Western instrumentation on the track. Recorded during the group's psychedelic period, it features studio techniques such as flanging, Leslie rotary effect, and reversed tape sounds.
Background and inspiration
George Harrison wrote "Blue Jay Way" after arriving in Los Angeles on 1 August 1967 with his wife Pattie Boyd and Beatles associates Neil Aspinall and Alex Mardas. The purpose of the trip was partly to see Ravi Shankar, whose upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl Harrison helped publicise, in addition to visiting Shankar's new Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles.
The name of the song comes from a street located high in the Hollywood Hills West area, overlooking Sunset Strip, where Harrison had rented a house for his stay. The home affords panoramic views of Hollywood and much of the Los Angeles Basin. It is located on a hillside of narrow, winding roads, difficult to navigate on a foggy night – thus creating the backdrop for the opening lines of the song: "There's a fog upon L.A., and my friends have lost their way."
According to Harrison's recollection of writing "Blue Jay Way":
I'd rented a house in Los Angeles – on Blue Jay Way, and I'd arrived there from England. I was waiting around for Derek and Joan Taylor who were then living in L.A. I was very tired after the flight and the time change and I started writing, playing a little electric organ that was in the house. It had gotten foggy and they couldn't find the house for some time. The mood is also slightly Indian. Derek Taylor is slightly Welsh.
The Californian holiday proved to be an important one for Harrison, and for the future direction of the Beatles. In the wake of the band's highly influential Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, Harrison, along with Taylor, Boyd and others, visited the recognised international "hippie capital" of Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco, on 7 August. Harrison had expected to encounter a community engaged in artistic pursuits and working to create a viable alternative lifestyle; instead, he was disappointed to find Haight-Ashbury populated by what he viewed as drug addicts, dropouts and "hypocrites". Following his return to England two days later, Harrison shared his disillusionment with John Lennon, soon after which the two bandmates publicly denounced the hallucinogenic drug LSD in favour of Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Composition and structure
"Blue Jay Way" was one of several songs that Harrison composed on a keyboard instrument over 1966–68 – a period when, aside from in his work with the Beatles, he had abandoned his first instrument, the guitar, to master the sitar, partly under Shankar's tutelage. The song oscillates between the chords of C major and C diminished, with much use of pedal drone, phasing, backwards tapes and automatic double tracking creating a sense of dislocation. The melody incorporates the Lydian mode through a sharp 4th note (F# in the major scale of C) in the lone cello (at 0.19 secs), then in the backing vocals on "don't be long" and in lead vocals on "I may be asleep."
The lyrics "There's a fog upon LA" and "and my friends have lost their way" feature dissonant tritone intervals (root-flat3-flat 5). In the choruses, Harrison repeatedly urges "Please don't be long / Please don't you be very long", a refrain that author Ian Inglis views as central to the composition's "extraordinary sense of yearning and melancholy".
Musicologist Walter Everett considers that "Blue Jay Way" is related to the Indian ragas Kosalam and Multani. According to author Simon Leng, Harrison based the song partly on Raga Marwa. Leng quotes Harrison's friend John Barham, who says that Harrison acknowledged Barham's piano adaptation of Raga Marwa as his influence. Inglis credits Harrison's use of ambient drone as "an anchorage point for vocal and instrumental improvisation" as one of the first examples of a technique that would be further popularised by folk artists including Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band.
The Beatles began recording "Blue Jay Way" on 6 September 1967 at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London. The group achieved a satisfactory basic track in a single take. They then carried out overdubs on 7 September and 6 October. Final mixing was done on 7 November. The vocals were put through a Leslie speaker. The record employs flanging, an audio delay technique, and the stereo and mono mixes differ noticeably. For the stereo version only, a full-length copy of the completed track was played backwards and faded in at key points during the song. The television film, Magical Mystery Tour, included the mono mix; the 1990s remastered version used a new stereo mix, sounding closer to the mono mix.
Among Beatles authors, Ian MacDonald and Mark Lewisohn credit Harrison as the sole organ player on the song, while Kenneth Womack and John Winn write that Lennon played a second keyboard part. In Womack's description, Harrison and Lennon performed "a psychedelic duet of dueling Hammond organs". An unnamed session musician played the cello on the recording.
Appearance in Magical Mystery Tour film
The song's segment in the Magical Mystery Tour film was shot mainly at West Malling in Kent, during the week beginning on 19 September. Described by Womack as "the movie's hazy, psychedelic sequence", the "Blue Jay Way" segment features Harrison sitting cross-legged and playing a chalk-drawn keyboard on the ground. With recording on the song incomplete at this point, Harrison mimed to a mix created at Abbey Road on 16 September. Recalling the production schedule for Magical Mystery Tour, Beatles aide Tony Barrow has described the scene as "a re-creation of the swirling smog found in the Los Angeles of the sixties".
The footage was heavily manipulated post-production to ensure that the song mirrored what author Alan Clayson terms "the requisite misty atmosphere" from the recording, with the result that Harrison's "image refracted as if seen through a fly's eye". At other times during the sequence for "Blue Jay Way", the four Beatles alternate as the performer of a cello. The latter scene was filmed on 3 November, on the rockery at Ringo Starr's house in Weybridge, Sunny Heights. Barrow recalls that "fireworks originally intended for Guy Fawkes Night were let off to provide the cameras with a colourful conclusion …"
Release and reception
"Blue Jay Way" was issued in Britain on the Magical Mystery Tour double EP on 8 December 1967. In America, where Capitol Records had combined the six EP tracks with five songs issued on the band's singles throughout the year, creating a full album, the release took place on 27 November.
Among reviews of the US release, Robert Christgau wrote in Esquire that, despite three of the new songs being "disappointing", the album was "worth buying … especially for Harrison's hypnotic 'Blue Jay Way,' an adaptation of Oriental modes in which everything works, lyrics included". In its combined review of concurrent releases such as Magical Mystery Tour, the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request and Cream's Disraeli Gears, Hit Parader admired the Beatles for further "widening the gap between them and 80 scillion other groups". The reviewer added: "The master magicians practice their alchemy on Harrison's 'Blue Jay Way', recorded perhaps in an Egyptian tomb, and 'I Am The Walrus', a piece of terror lurking in foggy midnight moors. These two songs accomplish what the Stones attempted."
A critic of the Beatles' output immediately post-Sgt. Pepper, Ian MacDonald found "Blue Jay Way" "as unfocused and monotonous as most of the group's output of this period", adding that the song "numbingly fails to transcend the weary boredom that inspired it". Writing for Rolling Stone in 2002, Greg Kot similarly considered it to be "one of [Harrison's] least-memorable Beatles tracks" and "a song essentially about boredom – and it sounds like it". Ian Inglis writes that the emotion Harrison conveys on the track "belies its apparently trivial lyrics" and that, together with the instrumentation and "ethereal" backing vocals, his pleas "create an unusually atmospheric and strangely moving song". Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham views the song as "essential Beatlemusic" as well as its composer's "most haunting and convincing musical contribution of the period and possibly the most unnerving of all Beatles tracks".
Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner noted "Blue Jay Way" as Harrison's first composition in which he "adapt[ed] some of his Indian-derived ideas to a more Western setting" and, in comparison to the fully Indian music-styled "Within You Without You", Schaffner considered it "less obvious and preachy" and therefore "much more intriguing". In his 1997 book Indian Music and the West, Gerry Farrell refers to the song when discussing its author's contribution to popularising Indian classical music, writing: "It is a mark of Harrison's sincere involvement with Indian music that, nearly thirty years on, the Beatles' 'Indian' songs remain among the most imaginative and successful examples of this type of fusion – for example, 'Blue Jay Way' and 'The Inner Light.'"
In his 2009 review for Consequence of Sound, Dan Caffrey highlights the track among the "stellar moments in the album's first half" and considers it to be "George Harrison's most underrated song". Caffrey adds: "For a piece inspired by the simple act of waiting for a friend to arrive at his Los Angeles home on a foggy night, 'Blue Jay Way' is a haunted house of a hit, adding an ethereal, creepy mythos to the City of Angels." Writing for The A.V. Club, Chuck Klosterman describes the song as being among "the trippiest … material [the Beatles] ever made", while Martin Kemp of Paste views it as "wonderfully wobbly". Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork Media includes "Blue Jay Way" among the EP's four "low-key marvels", about which he opines: "Few of them are anyone's all-time favorite Beatles songs … yet this run seems to achieve a majesty in part because of that: It's a rare stretch of amazing Beatles music that can seem like a private obsession rather than a permanent part of our shared culture."
Cover versions and cultural references
Lord Sitar included "Blue Jay Way" on his 1968 album of Indian music-style recordings, titled Lord Sitar. The artist credit was a pseudonym for London session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, although rumours circulated that Lord Sitar was in fact Harrison himself, partly as a result of EMI/Capitol's refusal to deny the claim. Also in 1968, jazz saxophonist and flautist Bud Shank, another associate of Ravi Shankar, recorded the song for his album Magical Mystery.
"Blue Jay Way" has been covered by the following artists:
- Colin Newman on his 1982 album Not To
- Borbetomagus on their 1990 album Buncha Hair That Long
- Dan Bern on his 1998 album Smartie Mine
- Rodney Graham on his 2000 album What Is Happy, Baby?
- Siouxsie and the Banshees on their 2003 live album Seven Year Itch
- Tracy Bonham on her 2006 EP titled In the City + In the Woods
- Dog Age on their 2006 album Reefy Seadragon
- The Secret Machines in the Julie Taymor-directed film Across the Universe (2007)
- Joe Rosenberg Ensemble on their 2014 album Resolution.
"Blue Jay Way" is referenced in Trevor Rabin's 1989 song "Something to Hold on to" (featured on his album Can't Look Away), in which Rabin claims to be looking for someone in Blue Jay Way. Jonathan Kellerman makes reference to Harrison's experience in his 2007 novel Obsession. Sara Brightman also referenced it in her track "I Loved You", as did the band Death Grips in their 2012 song "Double Helix".
Due to the attention created by the Beatles' song, the street signs for Blue Jay Way have long been collector's items for fans visiting the Hollywood Hills. In May 2015, a lane in the Heavitree area of Exeter, in the English county of Devon, was named Blue Jay Way after the song. The title also commemorates the Beatles' three concert appearances at Exeter's ABC Cinema over 1963–64.
- George Harrison – lead vocals, Hammond organ, cello arrangements
- John Lennon – backing vocals, tambourine
- Paul McCartney – backing vocals, bass
- Ringo Starr – drums, backwards cymbal
- Session musician – cello
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- Alan W. Pollack's Notes on "Blue Jay Way"
- Blue Jay Way – Google Maps
- Blue Jay Way – The Los Angeles Rock and Roll Map
- The REAL Blue Jay Way