Posted by: gdevi | February 9, 2014

Blue Jay Way paper

Hello, C.: Here is my Beatles conference paper. There is an expanded version of the paper that is more suitable for a journal. It is being reviewed for publication. Thanks. G.

Blue Jay Way: Natural (Nothing) Imagery and Ecological Ethos in The Beatles Song Texts, International Beatles Conference, PSU Altoona, Feb 7-9, 2014

I am going to talk specifically about two Beatles songs—“Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver (1966), and “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Both of these songs baffle us when we first listen to them, because the score gives neither visual complements nor aural familiarity to the sounds that we are hearing. We cannot place the instruments that are the source of the sounds that we are hearing. Of course, now we know the source of the scores, after the fact, because of the meticulous research into studio recording sessions, song by song, take by take, done by The Beatles scholars such as Mark Lewisohn, Ian MacDonald, and Walter Everett et al. But left to our own ears, we cannot place the instruments that are the source of the sounds. The compositional score has no naturalistic source in instrumental terms. In this paper, I ask the question why this is the case: why this kind of score for these songs? My tentative hypothesis is that both of these songs from the band’s psychedelic phase are specific musical nodes for a specific philosophical direction in the evolution of the musical thought of The Beatles. We may describe this dimension of their work as an ecological ethos, an intensely deep awareness of the interrelationship that sustains all beings in the network of life. The Beatles were not environmentalists; nor were they a “return-to-nature” band, for a band who satisfies the litmus test for the sixties counterculture. Yet, they were asking and answering the big questions about the origins of life and the universe, and how life sustains itself. My reading of these two songs is a modest attempt to explicate how they answered this question to themselves through their art.

In these songs, the group tried to articulate in the language of music a logical overdetermination of sound and music to arrive at an experience of “pure sound” as an experience and expression of certain elevated levels of consciousness. Ironically, these songs, and songs that employ a similar structure such as “Revolution” and “I am the Walrus” are ultimately more holistically aware of the big issues that affect human consciousness rather than, say, songs like “Mother Nature’s Son,” which says all the right things, and says them beautifully, but is still constrained within a conventional aesthetic of lyrical nostalgia. In “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Blue Jay Way” we hear the auditory imagery of the deep natural world, the region of primordial Nothingness, out of which life began for man and for all.

There is much delightful interplay between the lyrical textual and auditory imagery in the Beatles songs that sing of places, spaces, land, sea, sky etc. Whether it is simulating a submarine party 20, 000 leagues under the sea with all the bells and whistles and surging waves, or encouraging the blackbird to arise and sing louder and louder and end the song in a beautiful cadenza, or again, similarly, have the piggies grunt for the final coda, the auditory imagery with or without sound effects in the Beatles songs are primarily mimetic in nature, augmenting the lyric and secondary to the lyric. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Blue Jay Way” do not partake in this mimetic aspect. How do you mimic Nothingness? What is the sound of Nothingness?

Lyrically, often this particular dimension in the Beatles songs is translated as ideas of peace, love, and universal connectedness et al. However, their use of sound, particularly, the sampled, fragmented,tape- looped nature of the sounds heavily borrows from the musical experiments of the avant garde, a movement with which Paul McCartney, who followed the inventions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, was familiar[1]. More importantly, the use of sounds also appears to be indexical; in other words, the sounds do not necessarily signify meaning, but point towards the sounds themselves as a concrete fact,  regardless of interpretive possibility. Furthermore, through their very indexical nature, these sounds force us to listen to the songs, and their lyrics, with an intensity and attentiveness that a conventionally structured composition, however simple or complex, would not be able to command. In their emphasis on the role of music to weave a web of interrelationships not only between words and music, or varied musical styles, instruments, or cultures, but also between musical and non-musical sounds, these avant garde songs of the Beatles attempt to negotiate an ethical balance of life reflecting on the deep origins of the universe and of life itself.

I will look at the lyrics through an examination of the sounds, or the auditory imagery first. We can loosely and broadly classify the sounds we hear in a Beatles song into four different classes. In the first class are the sounds most commonly associated with western pop and rock music; the sounds of guitar, drums, harmonica, tambourine, piano, horns, hand-clapping, even bells or whistles. We know these sounds, and when we hear them we are not merely hearing them, we also see the instruments in our mind. These are sounds with a visual complement. Then there is a second class of sounds that are less familiar to an ear trained only in the western music tradition. These include the sounds of Indian instruments such as sitar, swaramandala or the tanpura. We might not have a mental image of these instruments when we hear them, but their form slides over into certain ideal forms, in the platonic sense, that we have for these sounds in our gestalt already. In the third class of sounds, we hear natural and organic sounds, such as bird songs, rooster crowing, dogs barking et al. We hear them with a visual complement in our mind. In the fourth class of sounds, we are unable to comprehend the source or origin or nature of the sounds at all. We hear them but we just do not know what these sounds are.

Our confusion stems from our inability to find neither visual complement nor auditory familiarity with the sound that we are hearing. We cannot interpret them. Sounds in this category very often even defy adequate description through language; we can only describe them incompletely, unsatisfactorily, often catachrestically. Many infamous examples of such sounds were discussed here this weekend—John Lennon’s directive to George Martin to make a sound like that of the Dalai Lama chanting on a mountaintop, or for a passage to sound orange, or to demand that a listener be able to taste sawdust[2]. What John Lennon is asking for is a synesthetic objective correlative—a concrete exemplum for an abstract entity that will translate any sensory experience into sound terms– for a concrete auditory block for a mental need and a mental experience, which is essentially the aesthetics of psychedelic music. Walter Everett indeed described the sound of  “Tomorrow Never Knows” as “pure sensations of cellular and sub-cellular processes that are subjectively described as internal sounds: clicking, thudding, clashing, coughing, ringing, tapping, moaning,shrill whistles  . . . raw, molecular, dancing units of energy perceived during the psychedelic experience[3].”

The aural impasse posed by these challenging sounds and the resultant shortchanging of our listening experience may best be understood in terms of “acousmatic listening” and our inexperience with sonorous objects, in general, in western music. Acousmatic listening and sonorous objects are both concepts coined by the French radio-engineer and composer Pierre Schaeffer to describe music made of sounds whose origins are not revealed in their performance. In his influential work Treatise on Musical Objects, Pierre Schaeffer, the founder of “musique concrete”, defined “acousmatic” as the “name given to the disciples of Pythagoras who, for five years, listened to the teaching while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, while observing strict silence[4].” Hidden from their eyes, only the voice of their master reached the disciples.  . .  Acousmatic, adjective, is said of a noise that one hears without seeing what causes it. This term marks the perceptive reality of sound as such, as distinguished from the modes of its production and transmission[5].” Further, Schaeffer argued that such an aural attention paid to the perceptive reality of sound returned us to “an ancient tradition, which, no less nor otherwise than contemporary radio and recordings, gives back to the ear alone the entire possibility of a perception that ordinarily rests on other sensible witnesses.[6]

Visual space and visual culture, and acoustic space and acoustic culture were qualitatively and paradigmatically differentiated by culture theorist Marshall McLuhan who argued it was indeed “acoustic imagination that dwelt in the realm of ebb and flow, the logos.”

“For hundreds of thousands of years, mankind lived without a straight line in nature. Objects in this world resonated with each other. For the caveman, the mountain Greek, the Indian hunter (indeed, even for the latter-day Manchu Chinese), the world was multicentered and reverberating. It was gyroscopic. Life was like being inside a sphere, 360 degrees without margins, swimming underwater, or balancing on a bicycle. Tribal life was, and still is, conducted like a three-dimensional chess game; not with pyramidal priorities. The order of ancient or prehistoric time was circular, not progressive. For one day to repeat itself at sunrise was an overwhelming boon. As this world began to fill itself out for the early primitive, the mind’s ear gradually dominated the mind’s eye. Speech, before the age of Plato, was the glorious repository of memory[7].”

In Composing for Films, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, similarly argued for the profound differences between auditory and visual perceptions in post-industrial western societies. “The human ear has not adapted itself to the bourgeois rational, and ultimately, highly industrialized order as readily as the eye, which has become accustomed to conceiving reality as made up  of separate things, commodities, objects that can be modified by practical activity[8].” Furthermore, for Adorno, “acoustical perception preserves comparably more traits of a long bygone, pre-individualistic collectivities than optical perception.” McLuhan, likewise, asserted that “acoustic space structure is the natural space of nature-in-the-raw inhabited by non-literate people. It is like the “mind’s ear,” or acoustic imagination that dominates the thinking of pre-literate and post-literate humans alike. In a comparison pertinent to my discussion, McLuhan contended that rock video has as much acoustic power as a Watusi mating dance.[9]

Of particular interest to us in articulating the acousmatic experiments and contributions of the Beatles to popular music, and its political and philosophical valence is Adorno’s postulation that music qua music is always “modern and archaic” at the same time. In certain fundamental ways, this postulation lies close to the heart of Schaeffer’s intuitive leap to forge elemental connections between Pythagoras’s “curtain” and the “Acousmonium” sound diffusion system designed in 1974 by Francois Bayle at the Maison de Radio France made up of 80 loudspeakers of differing size and shape designed for tape playback.  “In ancient times, the apparatus was the curtain;” Schaeffer argued, “today, it is the radio and the methods of reproduction, along with the whole set of electric-acoustic transformations, that place us, modern listeners to an invisible voice, under similar conditions[10].” Within the acousmatic field, Schaeffer explained, we no longer hear what we see. We develop an interest in the sounds—objets sonores – for themselves, without any aim other than that of hearing them better. The repetition of the physical signal, which recording makes possible, assists us here  . . . by exhausting this curiosity, it gradually brings the sonorous object to the fore as a perception worthy of being observed for itself; on the other hand, as a result of ever more attentive and more refined listenings, it progressively reveals to us the richness of this perception[11].”

In the songs of the Beatles, where the sounds are most uninterpretable and discontinuous with the lyrics, we can say that those sounds truly function as “pure sounds” and “sonorous objects” that assert their indexical existence, and furthermore through their insistent inscrutability point with renewed intensity towards the lyrics. In a happy coincidence, this discontinuous link between lyrics and textual visual imagery and auditory imagery is almost exclusively confined to the philosophical songs of the Beatles, particularly their songs that have as their matrix the transcendent sensations of the mind. Their love songs do not contain any discontinuities in their composition score, either lyrical or auditory. This indexical function of familiar and unfamiliar sounds may be seen in relatively simpler songs such as “Piggies” or “Blackbird,” where the grunting noises of the pig and the birdsong of the blackbird point towards the song lyrics directly.  “Good Morning Good Morning” falls into this category as well, where we get to hear and see a whole menagerie of animals—rooster, birds, cats, dogs, horses, sheep, tigers, elephant, foxhunt and chicken—a sealion was also considered but later dropped– each successive animal more capable of frightening and devouring its predecessor[12]. While “Good Morning Good Morning” shows a nominally more complex link between the animal sound imagery and the lyrics, the song itself does not resist our understanding. With the opening sound of rooster crowing, we are led through a day in vapid life of the singer persona, only to end with the cacophony of a zoo-barnyard chase.

In contrast to these simpler songs, which are also lyrically tied to social or at least personal upliftment, but which do not compel any hermeneutic from us because the song does not resist our understanding, we can posit songs such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966) and” Blue Jay Way” (1967), where the auditory imagery is actively discontinuous with the lyrics such that we are compelled to ponder over their source and origin, unknown and unknowable to us at the moment of listening, which forcibly directs us to the lyrics. The lyrics become the synesthetic objective correlative for the sounds that we cannot name and identify. These songs actively project a particular philosophical ethos, an ethos that signals a particular mode of listening to your heart, what the lyrics term “the meaning of within” in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  In discussing the genesis of this song, Walter Everett quotes the Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall: “the boys had been storing up all sorts of thoughts for the album and a lot of them came pouring out  at that first session! The words were written before the tune and there was no getting away from the fact that the words were very powerful. So all four boys were anxious to build a tune and a backing which would be as strong as the actual lyrics[13].”

The score that they composed in order to accompany this “powerful” text is unearthly and non-human and unidentifiable to human ears. The lyrics of the song—borrowed from Timothy Leary’s translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead– starts with a series of imperatives:

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void

The first imperative “turn off your mind,” evokes the mental metaphor of “noise.” Turning-off is an action associated with the domain of electrical or auditory signals. The directive asks you to turn off the noise in your mind. The non-human unearthly score that we listen thus functions as the objective correlative of this noise. George Martin had to put Lennon’s voice through a loudspeaker and rotate it so that it came out as a sort of strangled cry from the hillside[14]. Walter Everett notes that Paul McCartney supplied five tape loops said to contain Paul’s laughter and distorted and or sped up guitars, but “whose origins remain mystifyingly obscure even when the song is played backward or at half or quarter speed[15].” These sounds are commonly what are analogized as the “seagull sounds,” though they sound nothing like the seagull sounds of the Shangri-las singing “Remember Walking in the Sand.” The beauty of the score of “Tomorrow Never Knows” lies precisely in its ability to act as an objective correlative to the noise of the mind, commanding our attention with its obscure origins, and indexically directing us to follow the sound and thence the lyrics, which are all enlightening and insightful, with the music and lyrics imitating the looped nature of “the end of the beginning,” the refrain focusing our attention to “the beginning” at the end of the song.

But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving

So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning
Of the beginning, of the beginning
Of the beginning, of the beginning
Of the beginning, of the beginning

We find this method of the obscure sonorous object forcing us to listen acousmatically even more acutely in “Blue Jay Way” (1967). This song opens with an explicit statement about pollution in LA:

There’s a fog upon L.A.
And my friends have lost their way
We’ll be over soon they said
Now they’ve lost themselves instead
Please don’t be long please don’t you be very long
Please don’t be long for I may be asleep

The composition’s score consists of the Hammond organ drone, drums, and bass, with tape-reversed vocals in an odd “slightly Indian” scale. The resultant sound is “mysterious,” and atmospheric, again in an objective correlative sense—the sound of fog. The recalcitrant existence of this mysterious score forces us to listen to the lyrics, which repeatedly asks us “not to be long,” even though we are now lost in the fog upon LA. Again, it is only our awareness of how the music blocks our interpretation with its defamiliarization that allows us to understand its link to the lyrics. The “Blue Jay Way” is literally “the way” out of this fog. “Both Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Blue Jay Way” show us a way out of the noise within and the fog without. The music whose instrumental sources we cannot identify is crucial to our hearing this advice. The composition’s score is Pythagoras’s curtain, through which we listen to the teaching of the master.

The use of sound as a sonorous object in these songs achieved a felicitous actualization of sorts, outside the domain of aesthetics or entertainment, in February 2008, when NASA selected “Across the Universe” as the second song to be transmitted as an Interstellar Message[16]. The first musical interstellar message[17] was the “Theremin Concert to Aliens[18].”  Theremin is an electronic machine that produces musical sounds without physical contact between the performer and the instrument. Sound is produced by the machine sensing the position of the performer’s hands over its antennae for frequency and amplitude and then amplified through a loudspeaker. Theremin creates sonorous objects.  “Across the Universe” was transmitted to the star Polaris, 431 light years from Earth at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second[19].  The transmission marked the 40th anniversary of the day The Beatles recorded the song at EMI Studios, the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Deep Space Network, as well as the 50th anniversary of the NASA[20].  In deep space, where sound does not travel, the song would be silence, an irony that the Beatles would have appreciated. In Hindu metaphysics, the syllable cluster OM is the primordial consciousness at the time of creation that manifested itself as pure sound, or vibration. Hindu metaphysics sees the Universe as Nadabrahmam: the Universe as Sound.  Hindu metaphysics also tells you that the “Nothing” that existed in the dawn of creation was empty and pregnant with potentiality at the same time. This is the “Nothing” that will change John Lennon’s world. An awareness of this sacred plenitude and potentiality characterizes the deep ecological ethos that rules the psychedelic songs of the Beatles.


[1] The Beatles Anthology, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000, 210.

[2] Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology, Oxford University Press, 1999, 34.

[3] Everett, 38

[4] Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, New York: Continuum, 2006, 76-77

[5] Cox 77.

[6] Cox 77.

[7] Cox 68

[8] Cox 74

[9] Cox 70

[10] Cox 77

[11] Cox 78

[12] Everett, 115

[13] Everett 35

[14] Everett 36

[15] Everett 37


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