Old Brown Shoe
|"Old Brown Shoe"|
US picture sleeve (reverse)
|Single by the Beatles|
|A-side||"The Ballad of John and Yoko"|
|Released||30 May 1969|
|Recorded||16 & 18 April 1969|
|Studio||EMI Studios, London|
|The Beatles singles chronology|
"Old Brown Shoe" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles. Written by George Harrison, the group's lead guitarist, it was released on a non-album single in May 1969, as the B-side to "The Ballad of John and Yoko". The song was subsequently included on the Beatles' compilation albums Hey Jude, 1967–1970 and Past Masters, Volume Two.
The Beatles rehearsed "Old Brown Shoe" during the sessions for their album Let It Be in January 1969. Harrison subsequently taped a solo demo of the song, along with two other compositions that the band had overlooked: "Something" and "All Things Must Pass". The group then recorded the song formally in April, during the early sessions for Abbey Road. Several music critics have recognised "Old Brown Shoe" as one of Harrison's best compositions from the Beatles era.
The 1969 demo was released on the Beatles' Anthology 3 compilation in 1996. A live version by Harrison was included on his 1992 album Live in Japan. Gary Brooker performed the song at the Concert for George tribute in November 2002, held at London's Royal Albert Hall a year after Harrison's death.
Background and inspiration
– George Harrison, 1980
George Harrison began writing "Old Brown Shoe" in late 1968 on a piano, rather than guitar. The song's rhythm suggests the influence of ska. In his 1980 autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison says that the lyrical content started as a study in opposites and reflects "the duality of things – yes-no, up-down, left-right, right-wrong, etc." This idea was also prevalent in the Beatles' 1967 single "Hello, Goodbye", which Paul McCartney had written as an exercise in word association at a time when the Beatles increasingly embraced randomness as part of the creative process. For Harrison, rather than mere wordplay, the concept of duality appealed on a philosophical level, consistent with his interest in Eastern religion. Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' assistant, later recalled Harrison employing the metaphysical theme of opposites to disperse a chapter of Hells Angels who had taken up residence in the Beatles' Apple headquarters over Christmas 1968 and refused to leave.[nb 1] According to theologian Dale Allison, "Old Brown Shoe" is a further reflection of Harrison's interest in "dualities and contradictions" without the religiosity evident in much of his songwriting.
Author and critic Ian MacDonald identifies the "hood-eyed spirit" of Bob Dylan in the song's "dusty shuffle-beat" and ironic lyrics, while recognising the "surprising and graphic" chord progression as typical of Harrison's work. Author Alan Clayson also detects a Dylan influence in the rhythm, which he calls a "'Highway 61 Revisited' chug". Clayson cites the "undercurrent of bottleneck" in the song's main guitar riff as anticipating Harrison's slide guitar style, a technique he first embraced in December 1969 while on tour with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends.
"Old Brown Shoe" is in the key of C major. The chorus goes to the subdominant chord (F) ("I'm stepping out this old brown shoe"), and cadences on the submediant (A minor) via its secondary dominant (E). Among musicologists' assessments of the composition, Walter Everett considers that this "C/Am" duality fits well "with the composer's main concern in the poetic text". Alan Pollack highlights the song's interesting flat VI (A♭) chord in the verse, the V-IV (G-F chord) alternation in the bridge, and the "bluesy" effect of the frequent flat 3rd and 7th notes alongside the I7 (C7) chords.
Music critic Tim Riley says the lyrics represent "a witty and oblique look at love, delivered with sardonic flair", as typified by the opening verse: "I want a love that's right / Right is only half of what's wrong / I want a short-haired girl / Who sometimes wears it twice as long". According to music journalist Graham Reid, the song reflects Harrison's growing confidence as a songwriter. He interprets the message as the guitarist "straining against the constraints of the Beatles ('the zoo'?)" during a period when, as the lyrics state, he himself was "changing faster than the weather".
Let It Be rehearsals and Harrison demo
The Beatles rehearsed "Old Brown Shoe" several times over three days, beginning on 27 January 1969, during the Let It Be sessions at Apple Studio in London. Harrison still played piano on the song, as John Lennon struggled with the chord changes on guitar. At this point, Harrison had completed the lyrics and Ringo Starr had devised a suitable drum part on the off-beat.
After they declined to record the song, Harrison made a solo demo, featuring piano and electric guitars, at EMI Studios on 25 February 1969, the day of his 26th birthday. Along with his solo performances of "Something" and "All Things Must Pass" from the same session, this demo was released on the outtakes compilation Anthology 3 in 1996. Harrison had originally played these versions of "Old Brown Shoe" and "Something" to Joe Cocker, who accepted Harrison's offer to record the latter song.[nb 2] Author Simon Leng describes "Old Brown Shoe" as "the most complete in conception" of the three demos, with an arrangement that contains all the main elements present in the Beatles' subsequent recording.
Official band version
The Beatles revisited "Old Brown Shoe" when they were in need of a B-side for their next single, "The Ballad of John and Yoko", Lennon's account of his and Yoko Ono's recent wedding and honeymoon. The recording took place on 16 and 18 April 1969, during the early sessions for the band's Abbey Road album. The recording features lead vocals from Harrison, which he sung in a corner of the studio, to capture a natural reverberation from the room, and backing vocals by Lennon and McCartney. The line-up on the basic track, taped on 16 April, was Harrison on lead guitar, Lennon on rhythm guitar, McCartney on tack piano, and Starr on drums. Four takes were needed to achieve a satisfactory performance; Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles' recording historian, comments on the band's tight ensemble playing, evident from the studio tapes, and how focused each musician sounds in his contribution.
The song's unusual bass sound was achieved by tracking the bass with the lead guitar, replicating the bass line that Harrison had played on his demo. Everett states that it was McCartney's Jazz Bass doubled in the bridge with Harrison's Telecaster, both playing chromatically moving arpeggiations in a similar manner to the bridge guitars in "And Your Bird Can Sing". In a 1987 interview for Creem magazine, however, Harrison recalled that he was the bass guitarist on the track, rather than McCartney. When the interviewer, J. Kordosh, suggested that the bass part "sounds like McCartney was going nuts again", Harrison replied: "That was me going nuts. I’m doing [on the bass] exactly what I do on the guitar."
Everett writes that Harrison's "stinging highly Claptonesque solo" was played on a Telecaster coloured through a Leslie speaker given automatic double tracking (ADT) treatment and "sent wild to both channels". During this overdubbing session, on 18 April, Lennon's rhythm guitar contribution was removed and replaced with a Hammond organ part, played by Harrison. Also present when the group recorded their backing vocals was the Aerovons, an American band who had based their sound and image on the Beatles, and had come to London to record at EMI. Tom Hartman, the Aerovons' singer and guitarist, recalled that the Beatles attempted the line "Who knows, baby, you may comfort me" countless times, trying to perfect their performance. According to author Elliot Huntley, after Lennon had shown little interest in any compositions other than his own during the January sessions, he now sounded "audibly excited" by "Old Brown Shoe" in his "enthusiastic and energetic backing vocals" on the song.
In a 1980 interview, Lennon said that he was responsible for the choice of "Old Brown Shoe" as the B-side of "The Ballad of John and Yoko". It marked the second time that a Harrison composition had been included on a Beatles single, following "The Inner Light" in March 1968, although his song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" had also been the B-side of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", a single culled from The Beatles and issued in most countries other than Britain and America.[nb 3] The single was released in Britain (as Apple R 5786) on 30 May 1969 and in America (as Apple 2531) on 4 June. Although Chris Thomas supervised the 18 April overdubbing session, George Martin was credited as the song's sole producer.[nb 4] "Old Brown Shoe" was listed with "The Ballad of John and Yoko", as a double A-side, when the single topped Australia's Go-Set National Top 40.
In the United States, Apple Records issued the record in a picture sleeve featuring shots of the four Beatles and Ono in the garden of McCartney's London home. On the reverse side of the sleeve, the photo included a dark brown shoe placed in a bush in front of the five figures. In the opinion of author Bruce Spizer, this shot, taken by Linda McCartney, shows Harrison, McCartney and Starr in better humour than in the shot used on the front of the sleeve, where the three bandmates appear uncomfortable with having to pose behind Ono and Lennon.
"Old Brown Shoe"'s first appearance on an album was in February 1970 when, along with its A-side, it was included on the North American release Hey Jude. It subsequently appeared on the 1973 compilation 1967–1970 and, following the standardisation of the Beatles' catalogue for compact disc in 1987, Past Masters, Volume Two. The song has nevertheless remained a comparative rarity within the band's catalogue.
Critical reception and legacy
Ian MacDonald admires "Old Brown Shoe" as one of its author's "most forceful pieces" and "an archetypal B-side from an era when B-sides were worth flipping a single for". Walter Everett says the voice leading and harmony on "Old Brown Shoe" are "far more subtle and interesting" than such qualities in "The Ballad of John and Yoko", and similarly views its dualistic theme as "more interesting" than McCartney's lyrics in "Hello, Goodbye". Tim Riley deems the song "at least as good a rocker as 'Savoy Truffle'" and, like "The Inner Light", an example of the Beatles continuing their tradition of offering high-quality and musically diverse B-sides. He describes Harrison's guitar solo as "daring" and a performance that "rises and falls with astonishing fluidity and control".
Writing for Rolling Stone in 2002, Greg Kot said the song was "dark, droll, rollicking" and arguably Harrison's "most underrated Beatles composition".[nb 5] In his overview of Harrison's career for Goldmine that same year, Dave Thompson included "Old Brown Shoe" among the five Harrison-written songs that "rank among the finest Beatles compositions of the group's final years". Simon Leng says that its status as a B-side to the Lennon–McCartney composition is indicative of Harrison's "dilemma" during the last year of the Beatles' career. Leng continues:
In any other band, this upbeat boogie that matched lyrical sophistication with another outstanding guitar break would have taken precedence over the rough, self-serving travelogue that was "The Ballad of John and Yoko." Harrison's song works on any level, in any context, while the Lennon piece could only have relevance within the Beatles' self-referential sphere ... This kind of glaring anomaly forced George Harrison out of the Beatles.
Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham recognises "Old Brown Shoe" as "perhaps the densest, sharpest Harrison song to make it onto a Beatles record". In his review of Anthology 3, for Mojo, in 1996, Ingham admired the "focussed demo work" of Harrison, adding: "Fighting harder for album space consideration [beside Lennon and McCartney], the spirit on his demos throughout this period is wonderful, the songs shining vividly through. The stripped-down, beautifully sung 'Old Brown Shoe', 'Something' and 'All Things Must Pass' ... nearly steal the show with their simplicity and confidence. The sound of a man quietly getting into his stride." Joe Bosso of MusicRadar includes "Old Brown Shoe" among Harrison's "10 Greatest Beatles Songs", describing it as "An infectious, lively track that tumbles out of the gate (check out Ringo's raucous drumming) and gallops off." He also highlights Harrison's "blazing guitar solo" and says that, with his guitar, bass and organ contributions, the recording is "practically all-George".
Live version and posthumous tributes
Harrison performed "Old Brown Shoe" throughout his 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton, Harrison's only tour as a solo artist other than his 1974 North American tour. Typically of his approach during the Japanese concerts, the song's arrangement was little changed from the Beatles' recording. A live version was included on Harrison's 1992 album Live in Japan. He also played the song at his only full-length concert in the UK, a benefit for the Natural Law Party held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 6 April 1992.
Gary Brooker performed "Old Brown Shoe" at the Concert for George in 2002, while Leslie West contributed a recording to the 2003 album Songs from the Material World: A Tribute to George Harrison. At the George Fest tribute concert in 2014, the song was performed by Conan O'Brien.
According to Ian MacDonald (except where noted):
- George Harrison – vocal, electric guitars, Hammond organ, bass guitar
- John Lennon – backing vocal; rhythm guitar (deleted)
- Paul McCartney – backing vocal, tack piano
- Ringo Starr – drums
- According to Aspinall, Harrison told the Angels: "Well, you know, there's yin–yang, in–out, up–down ... you're here – you go." Aspinall added: "And they said, 'Okay' – and went!"
- In a 1982 interview, Cocker recalled the meeting with Harrison: "I was really taken aback at how brilliant he was, 'cause he just played such simple chords and made a tune around them. And he gave me 'Old Brown Shoe' to work with – I never did anything with it, though."
- Lennon later pushed to have "Something" released as a single from Abbey Road, thereby giving Harrison his first Beatles A-side.
- Although not credited as such by EMI, the Beatles essentially self-produced their sessions at this point.
- Dominic Pedler, a musicologist, also finds the song "highly underrated" and says it features "some typically inspired Harrison-esque sleight-of-hand, courtesy again of the augmented chord".
- Ingham 2006, p. 135.
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