I Want to Tell You
|"I Want to Tell You"|
|Song by the Beatles from the album Revolver|
|Released||5 August 1966|
|Recorded||2–3 June 1966
EMI Studios, London
"I Want to Tell You" is a song by the English rock group the Beatles from their 1966 album Revolver. It was written and sung by George Harrison, the band's lead guitarist. After "Taxman" and "Love You To", it was the third Harrison composition recorded for Revolver, marking the first time that he was allocated more than two songs on a Beatles album.
When writing the song, Harrison drew inspiration from his experimentation with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. The lyrics address what he later termed "the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit". Harrison's stuttering guitar riff on the track, together with the dissonance he employs in the melody, attempt to reflect the difficulties of achieving genuine communication. The recording also marks the first time that Paul McCartney played his bass guitar part after the rhythm track was complete, a method that became common on the Beatles' subsequent recordings.
Harrison performed "I Want to Tell You" as the opening song throughout his 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton. A version recorded during that tour appears on his Live in Japan album. At the Concert for George tribute in November 2002, a year after Harrison's death, the song was used to open the Western portion of the event, when it was performed by Jeff Lynne. Ted Nugent, the Smithereens, Thea Gilmore and the Melvins are among the other artists who have covered the track.
Background and inspiration
George Harrison wrote "I Want to Tell You" in the early part of 1966, the year in which his songwriting matured in terms of subject matter and productivity. As a secondary composer to John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the Beatles, Harrison began to establish his own musical identity through his absorption in Indian culture, as well as the perspective he gained through his experiences with the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). According to author Gary Tillery, the song resulted from a "creative surge" that Harrison experienced once he had found a regular supplier of LSD in England, at the start of 1966.
In his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison says that "I Want to Tell You" addresses "the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit". Authors Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc cite the song, along with "Rain" and "Within You Without You", as an early example of the Beatles abandoning "coy" statements in their lyrics and instead "adopt[ing] an urgent tone, intent on channeling some essential knowledge, the psychological and/or philosophical epiphanies of LSD experience" to their listeners. Writing in The Beatles Anthology, Harrison likened the outlook inspired by his taking the drug to that of "an astronaut on the moon, or in his spaceship, looking back at the Earth. I was looking back to the Earth from my awareness."
Author Robert Rodriguez views the song as reflecting the effects of Harrison's search for increased awareness, in that "the faster and more wide-reaching his thoughts came, the greater the struggle to find the words to express them". As reproduced in I, Me, Mine, Harrison's original lyrics were more direct and personal, compared with the philosophical focus of the completed song. The latter has nevertheless invited interpretation as a standard love song, in which the singer is cautiously entering into a romance. Another interpretation is that the theme of miscommunication was a statement on the Beatles' divergence from their fans as much as a comment on failed communication between individuals.
"I Want to Tell You" is in the key of A major and in a standard time signature of 4/4. It contains a descending guitar riff that music journalist Richie Unterberger describes as "circular, full" and "typical of 1966 British mod rock". The riff opens and closes the song and recurs between the verses. Harrison's voice is supported by Lennon and McCartney in close harmony.
Like "Eight Days a Week", the song begins with a fade-in. The vocals open with a harmonious E-A-B-C#-E melody note progression against an A chord, but dissonance soon arises with a II7 (B7) chord pointedly mirroring the lyrics on "drag me down". The dissonance is immediately enhanced by the rare use of an E7♭9 chord (at 0.46-0.53 secs). In subsequent interviews, Harrison described this harsh-sounding chord as, variously, "an E and an F at the same time" and "an E7th with an F on top, played on the piano".
In "I Want to Tell You", Harrison sings of the inadequacy of words in conveying genuine emotion. The frustration he expresses in the lyrics is reinforced by the song's dissonant atmosphere, a product of numerous elements, including the continuous piano chord in the background and the contrast between Harrison's modest lead vocal and Lennon and McCartney's descant harmonies. Dave Laing writes of the song's "serene desperation" in its "attempt at real total contact in any interpersonal context".
The bridge reveals some of Harrison's thinking at the time, reducing his internal difficulties to conflicts within his being:
- But if I seem to act unkind
- It's only me, it's not my mind
- That is confusing things
Laing interprets the entities "me" and "my mind" as, respectively, "individualistic, selfish ego" and "the Buddhist not-self, freed from the anxieties of historical Time". In I, Me, Mine, however, Harrison attributes the opposite meaning to each of the two terms; he states that, with hindsight, the verse's second line should be reversed, since: "The mind is the thing that hops about telling us to do this and do that – when what we need is to lose (forget) the mind." He changed that line to "It's not me, it's just my mind" when performing the song during his Japanese tour in December 1991.
Musicologist Walter Everett comments on the aptness of the lyric "maybe you'll understand", which closes the second bridge, as the melody descends to a "perfect authentic cadence". He also notes that McCartney's "finger-tapping impatience" on the piano when playing the dissonant E7♭9 chord is countered by the message of the song's concluding lines: "I don't mind / I could wait forever, I've got time." During the fadeout (a reprise of the guitar intro featuring a prominent group vocal harmony), McCartney makes use of melisma while chanting "I've got time", revealing the song's subtle Indian influence. Author Jonathan Gould describes the combined singing of Harrison, Lennon and McCartney over this section as "a lovely a cappella chorale, their voices ululating on the line 'I've got time' like a trio of Mersey muezzins".
Untitled at the time, "I Want to Tell You" was the third Harrison composition recorded for the Beatles' 1966 album Revolver, although his initial submission for a third contribution was "Isn't It a Pity". It was the first time he had been permitted more than two songs on one of the group's albums. The opportunity came about due to Lennon's inability to write any new material over the previous weeks.[nb 1] Exasperated by Harrison's habit of not titling his compositions, Lennon jokingly named it "Granny Smith Part Friggin' Two" – referring to the working title, derived from the Granny Smith apple, for another Harrison song from the Revolver sessions, "Love You To". Seizing on this, Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' recording engineer, suggested "Laxton's Superb" after another variety of apple.
The Beatles taped the main track, consisting of guitars, piano and drums, on 2 June 1966 at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London. Five takes were recorded before Harrison selected take 3 for further work. After reduction to a single track on the four-track master tape, their performance consisted of Harrison on lead guitar, treated with a Leslie effect, McCartney on piano and Ringo Starr on drums, with Lennon adding tambourine.[nb 2] The group then overdubbed vocals, more percussion, additional piano (at the end of the bridge sections and over the E7♭9 chord in the verses) and handclaps.
The final overdub, McCartney's bass part, was added on 3 June. The process of recording the bass separately from a rhythm track allowed for greater flexibility when mixing a song, and allowed McCartney to better control the harmonic structure of the music by defining chords. As confirmed by the band's recording historian, Mark Lewisohn, "I Want to Tell You" was the first Beatles song to have the bass superimposed onto the recording.[nb 3] This technique became commonplace in the Beatles' subsequent work. During the session, the song was temporarily renamed "I Don't Know", which had been Harrison's reply to a question from producer George Martin regarding what he wanted to call the track. The eventual title was decided on by 6 June, during a remixing and tape-copying session for various tracks from Revolver.
Release and reception
EMI's Parlophone label released Revolver on 5 August 1966. "I Want to Tell You" was sequenced between Lennon's song about a New York doctor who administered amphetamine doses to his wealthy patients, "Doctor Robert", and "Got to Get You into My Life", written by McCartney as what he later termed "an ode to pot". Commenting on the unprecedented inclusion of three of his songs on a Beatles album, Harrison told Melody Maker that he felt disadvantaged in not having a collaborator, as Lennon and McCartney were to one another. He added: "when you're competing against John and Paul, you have to be very good to even get in the same league."
According to Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner, Harrison's contributions to Revolver – "I Want to Tell You", "Taxman", which opened the album, and the Indian music-styled "Love You To" – established him as a songwriter within the band. Author Ian Inglis writes that "Revolver has often been cited as the album on which Harrison came of age as a songwriter." Writing in 2004, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone said that the album displayed a diversity of emotions and styles ranging from the Beatles' "prettiest music" to "their scariest", among which "I Want to Tell You" represented the band at "their friendliest".
In a contemporary review for the NME, Allen Evans wrote that "The Beatles' individual personalities are now showing through loud and clear" and he admired the song's combination of guitar and piano motifs and vocal harmonies. In their combined album review in Record Mirror, Richard Green found the track "Well-written, produced and sung" and praised the harmony singing, while Peter Jones commented on the effectiveness of the introduction and concluded: "The deliberately off-key sounds in the backing are again very distinctive. Adds something to a toughly romantic number."
In America, as a result of the controversy there surrounding Lennon's remark that the Beatles had become more popular than Christianity, the initial reviews of Revolver were relatively lukewarm. While commenting on this phenomenon in September 1966, KRLA Beat's reviewer described "I Want to Tell You" as "unusual, newly-melodic, and interesting" and lamented that, as with songs such as "She Said She Said" and "Yellow Submarine", it was being denied the recognition it deserved.
Retrospective assessment and legacy
Writing for Rolling Stone in 2002, Mikal Gilmore credited Harrison's incorporation of dissonance on "I Want to Tell You" as having been "revolutionary in popular music" in 1966. He considered this device to be "perhaps more originally creative than the avant-garde mannerisms that Lennon and McCartney borrowed from the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky in this same period". According to musicologist Dominic Pedler, the E7♭9 chord that Harrison introduced in the song became "one of the most legendary in the entire Beatles catalogue". Speaking in 2001, Harrison said: "I'm really proud of that as I literally invented that chord … John later borrowed it on I Want You (She's So Heavy) [at] 'It's driving me mad.'"[nb 4]
In his overview of "I Want to Tell You", musicologist Alan Pollack highlights Harrison's descending guitar riff as "one of those all-time great ostinato patterns that sets the tone of the whole song right from the start". Producer/musician Chip Douglas has stated that he based the guitar riff for the Monkees' 1967 hit "Pleasant Valley Sunday" on that of the Beatles' song. Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (and later the Rutles) recalls being at Abbey Road Studios while the Beatles were recording "I Want to Tell You" and his band were working on a 1920s vaudeville song titled "My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies". Innes said he heard the Beatles playing back "I Want to Tell You" at full volume, and appreciated then, in the words of music journalist Robert Fontenot, "just how far out of their league he was, creatively". Innes has since included his recollection of this episode in his stage show.
Ian MacDonald cites the song as an example of Harrison's standing as "[if] not the most talented then certainly the most thoughtful of the songwriting Beatles" and he comments that, in keeping with the lyrics' "underlying Hindu outlook", Harrison's embrace of Indian philosophy "was dominating the social life of the group" a year after its release. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic recognises the track as an example of its composer's audacious songwriting on Revolver, although he considers that this and Harrison's other two contributions were "eclipsed by Lennon's trippy kaleidoscopes of sound" on the album. Writing for the same website, Richie Unterberger admires the song's "interesting, idiosyncratic qualities" and the group vocals on the recording, adding that McCartney's singing merits him recognition as "one of the great upper-register male harmony singers in rock".[nb 5] In a 2010 review of Revolver, for Consequence of Sound, Chris Coplan said that Harrison's presence as a vocalist "fits perfectly in contrast with some of the bigger aspects of the [album's] psychedelic sounds" and added: "In a song like 'I Want To Tell You', the sinister piano and the steady, near-tribal drum line combine effortlessly with his voice to make for a song that is as beautiful as it is emotionally impacting and disturbing."
Ted Nugent covered "I Want to Tell You" on his 1979 album State of Shock, a version that Billboard's reviewer said was "probably enough to sell the album". Nugent's recording was also released as a single that year, and later appeared on his 1998 compilation Super Hits. The Lambrettas and Mike Melvoin are among the other artists who have recorded the song. The Grateful Dead included "I Want to Tell You" in their live performances in 1994, before which Jerry Garcia had occasionally performed it live with his long-running solo project, the Jerry Garcia Band.
A live version from Harrison's 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton opens his Live In Japan album, released in 1992. Harrison said that, even before rehearsals, he had chosen "I Want to Tell You" as the opening song for the tour, which marked his first series of concerts since 1974. On this live version, he and Clapton extend the song by each playing a guitar solo. "I Want to Tell You" was also Harrison's opener at the Natural Law Party Concert, held at London's Royal Albert Hall in April 1992, which was his only full-length concert as a solo artist in Britain. In November 2002, a year after Harrison's death, Jeff Lynne performed "I Want to Tell You" at the Concert for George tribute, where it served as the first song of the main, Western-music portion of the event. Lynne was backed by a large band, including Clapton and other musicians who had supported Harrison on the 1991 tour and at the Natural Law Party Concert.
Blue Cartoon covered the song in the power pop style for the Harrison tribute album He Was Fab, released in 2002. The following year, the Smithereens contributed a recording to another Harrison tribute album, Songs from the Material World. The band also included the track on the 2005 deluxe edition of God Save the Smithereens. Thea Gilmore recorded the song during the sessions for her 2006 album Harpo's Ghost, a version that appeared on Mojo magazine's Revolver Reloaded CD celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles' 1966 album. The Melvins covered "I Want to Tell You" on their 2016 album Basses Loaded, with Steven Shane McDonald on bass. While Pitchfork Media's reviewer dismisses the Melvins' performance as a throwaway version of a "Beatles classic", Jared Skinner of PopMatters describes it as "solid proof of their ability to make loud, gleeful rock 'n' roll".
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- John Lennon – harmony vocal, tambourine, handclaps
- Paul McCartney – harmony vocal, bass, piano, handclaps
- Ringo Starr – drums, maracas, handclaps
- In addition, the Beatles were working under the pressure of a deadline, since the album had to be completed before the band began their 1966 world tour in West Germany, on 23 June.
- Harrison added his opening guitar part separate from this group performance, during the reduction mix.
- Everett cites "For No One" as an earlier example. That song was not a full group performance, however; instead, its sparse arrangement was built up by McCartney and Starr from their basic track of piano and hi-hat.
- Harrison also incorporated the chord in his 1967 song "Blue Jay Way" and, twenty years later, in "When We Was Fab".
- Similarly impressed with McCartney's contribution, Joe Bosso of MusicRadar describes the incorporation of vocal melisma as "an affectionate nod to Harrison's Indian influences" and includes the track among his choice of Harrison's ten best songs from the Beatles era.
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