Blue Jay Way
|"Blue Jay Way"|
1967 UK EP face label
|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,
EMI Studios, London
|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 the Hollywood Hills 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 extensive use of studio techniques such as flanging, Leslie rotary effect, and reversed tape sounds.
The song also appeared in the Beatles' 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour, in a sequence that re-creates the sense of haziness and dislocation evident in the recording. The music website Consequence of Sound describes "Blue Jay Way" as "a haunted house of a hit, adding an ethereal, creepy mythos to the City of Angels". Other artists who have recorded the song include Bud Shank, Colin Newman, Tracy Bonham, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Greg Hawkes.
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 to spend a week with Derek Taylor, the Beatles' former press officer and latterly the publicist for Californian acts such as the Beach Boys and the Byrds. The visit also allowed Harrison to reunite with his sitar tutor, Ravi Shankar, whose upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl he helped publicise.
The title of the song comes from a street named Blue Jay Way, high in the Hollywood Hills West area overlooking Sunset Strip, where Harrison had rented a house for his stay. Jet-lagged after the flight from London, he began writing the composition on a Hammond organ as he and Boyd waited for Taylor and the latter's wife Joan to join them. The home's location, on a hillside of narrow, winding roads, and the foggy conditions that night created the backdrop for the song's opening lines: "There's a fog upon L.A. / And my friends have lost their way." Harrison had completed the song by the time the Taylors arrived, around two hours later than planned.
The Californian holiday proved to be an important one 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". Taylor later expressed amusement at how some commentators interpreted "don't be long" as meaning "don't belong" – a message to Western youth to opt out of society – and at how the line "And my friends have lost their way" was supposedly conveying the idea that "a whole generation had lost direction".
The verses omit a final beat, a detail that musicologist Alan Pollack recognises as reflecting a sense of impatience, in keeping with the circumstances surrounding the song's creation. Following the third verse–chorus combination, the outro comprises four rounds of the chorus, with the lyrics to the final round consisting of the repeated "Don't be long" refrain. In a feature that Pollack terms "compositionally impressive", each of the four sections in this outro varies in structure by being either shorter in length or less musically detailed.
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 song was Harrison's contribution to the television film Magical Mystery Tour, the first project undertaken by the band following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner describes "Blue Jay Way" as the first Harrison composition in which he "adapt[ed] some of his Indian-derived ideas to a more Western setting", with Hammond organ, cello and drums serving the function of, respectively, tambura drone, sitar and tabla.
The group achieved a satisfactory basic track – comprising organ, bass guitar and drums – in a single take. They then carried out overdubs at Abbey Road on 7 September and 6 October. Final mixing was done on 7 November. Among Beatles authors, Ian MacDonald credits 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.
"Blue Jay Way" features extensive use of three studio techniques employed by the Beatles over 1966–67: flanging, an audio delay effect; sound-signal rotation via a Leslie speaker; and (in the stereo mix only) reversed tapes.[nb 1] In the case of the latter technique, a tape of the completed track was played backwards and faded in at key points during the song. In particular, this effect created a response to Harrison's lead vocal over the verses, as the group backing vocals appear to answer each line he sings. Due to the limits of multitracking, the process of feeding in reversed sounds was carried out live during the final mixing session, but it was not repeated when working on the mono mix.
Appearance in Magical Mystery Tour film
The song's segment in Magical Mystery Tour 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 on a pavement and playing a chalk-drawn keyboard. Dressed in a red suit, he appears to be busking on a roadside; next to his keyboard are a white plastic cup and a message written in chalk, reading: "2 wives and kid to support".[nb 2] 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". In the description of music journalist Kit O'Toole, the smoke surrounding Harrison in the scene "almost engulf[s] him, mimicking the 'fog' described in the lyrics".
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". Taylor described this effect as being a prism that produced "about eight images" of the performer.
At other times during the sequence for "Blue Jay Way", the four Beatles alternate as the performer of a cello. The latter scenes were filmed on 3 November, on the rockery at Sunny Heights, Ringo Starr's house in Weybridge, Surrey. Barrow recalls that "fireworks originally intended for Guy Fawkes Night were let off to provide the cameras with a colourful conclusion …" The version of "Blue Jay Way" appearing in the 2012 DVD release of Magical Mystery Tour is an alternative edit and includes some previously unused footage. O'Toole admires the "Blue Jay Way" segment as "one of the film's too-few bright spots" and "a perfect representation of the track's hallucinatory qualities".
Release and reception
"Blue Jay Way" was issued in Britain as the final song 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.
In his review for the NME, Nick Logan considered the EP to be "Sergeant Pepper and beyond, heading for marvellous places", during which "we cruise down 'Blue Jay Way' with [Harrison] almost chanting the chorus line. A church organ starts this one off and leads us into a whirlpool of sound …" Among reviews of the US release, Saturday Review admired the album as a "description of the Beatles' acquired Hindu philosophy and its subsequent application to everyday life". Robert Christgau wrote in Esquire that, despite three of the new songs being "disappointing", Magical Mystery Tour 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 praised 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 deems the song to be "essential Beatlemusic" and views it as Harrison's "most haunting and convincing musical contribution of the period", after "Within You Without You", as well as "possibly the most unnerving of all Beatles tracks". While comparing "Blue Jay Way" to the fully Indian music-styled "Within You Without You", Nicholas Schaffner found 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 her song review for the music website Something Else!, Kit O'Toole describes "Blue Jay Way" as one of its composer's "most eccentric and abstract compositions" and "the perfect snapshot of the Beatles' most unusually creative artistic phase". Former Record Collector editor Peter Doggett, writing in Barry Miles' The Beatles Diary, similarly admires the recording, saying: "What could have been a simple, maudlin ditty was transformed by The Beatles' studio process into an exotic, almost mystical journey. Harrison's vocal was treated until it sounded as if it was coming from beyond the grave … Backwards tapes, droning organs, and a cello combined to heighten the Eastern atmosphere – without a single Indian instrument being employed."
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.
Colin Newman, singer and guitarist with the post-punk band Wire, included a cover of "Blue Jay Way" on his 1982 solo album Not To. In March 2015, the song was also his selection for the NME 's "100 Greatest Beatles Songs" poll. Newman cited the track as an example of how the Beatles were "properly serious about their art" and therefore why they now "need to be rescued from the clammy clutches of the heritage industry".
Borbetomagus released a live recording of the song on their 1992 album Buncha Hair That Long, a version that Trouser Press said "could easily reunite the Beatles for good if it were played in the presence of the surviving trio". Other artists who have covered "Blue Jay Way" include Sadao Watanabe, Samm Bennett, Tracy Bonham, Dan Bern, as well as the Secret Machines, whose version appears in the Julie Taymor-directed film Across the Universe (2007).
Harrison's experience when writing "Blue Jay Way" is referenced in the Jonathan Kellerman novel Obsession (2007), as the lead character, Alex Delaware, waits among the "bird streets" overlooking Sunset Strip. The US hip hop group Death Grips quote from the song's lyrics in "Double Helix", released on their 2012 album The Money Store, which Clash magazine's reviewer described as sounding like "the burning skies of LA's decaying empire".
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, backing vocals
- John Lennon – backing vocals, tambourine
- Paul McCartney – backing vocals, bass
- Ringo Starr – drums, backwards cymbal
- Session musician – cello
- Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn compares "Blue Jay Way" with two Lennon tracks from this period, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus", in that the recording "seized upon all the studio trickery and technical advancements of 1966 and 1967 and captured them in one song". According to authors Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin, "'Blue Jay Way' was the only Beatles song to use practically all the effects available at that time."
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