"One After 909" was either written by John Lennon with a little help from Paul McCartney (according to John), or, half and half by the two (according to Paul). Either way, it isn’t surprising that memories have blurred because the song is the product of John and Paul at the start of their songwriting career, say 1957 or so, when their lyrics were still derivative and their finished songs were, well, er, derivative too.
And so a 15 year-ish old Paul McCartney sat down with a 16 year-ish old John Lennon, and according to Paul, they decided to try their hand at a traditional blues-train song like "Rock Island Line" (which had just been recorded by Lonnie Donnegan), "Freight Train," or "Midnight Special." The song they came up with is, to be blunt, pretty rudimentary, the lyrics repetitive and formulaic, and the theme hackneyed — but why shouldn’t they be?
This was not yet Great Beatles Art, this was a couple of teenage boys cutting up in a living room while cutting school for the day. It was just good boy-fun, a neat writing exercise for two young kids that would later shake the world, but at present hadn’t done much except smoke a lot of ciggies and nicked coins from their parent’s dressers. "Hey, let’s write a freight song!" "OK, is your Aunt home? Let’s go to yours!"" Even Paul, in his most self-important later moments, never tried to turn the result — "909" — into Beatles Great Art. He just shrugs and says: "It’s not a great song but it’s a great favorite of mine because it has great memories for me of John and I trying to write a bluesy freight song."
Everything about the song is simple. The lyrics include moon/June pairings that would make Irving Berlin blush: "Move over once, move over twice/come on baby, don’t be cold as ice." Even the parallel third harmony that Paul came up with is straight Everly Brothers (similar to their equally early effort "In Spite of All The Danger."). And yet, this dumb little song — this songwriting exercise by two wet-behind-the-ears kids — wouldn’t die. It kept coming back, over and over.
First, one can find on the Internet (and Anthology) a 1960 recording of the song by the Quarrymen, i.e., Paul, John and George on unplugged guitars, in someone’s living room, probably John’s. It sounds amazingly like the version The Beatles released 10 years later, but there are some fascinating glimpses into the evolution of the band in this version. Paul and John are already locking in vocally better than most humans could ever hope to, but unlike their later work, sometimes they fail to match each other exactly. It’s a tribute to their vocal blending that you listen to this version and the most you can say is "Wait — that harmony line wasn’t perfect! Gotcha, Beatles!" But it isn’t a fair comparison — they weren’t Beatles yet.
The next recording of this song is from March 5, 1963, when they were firmly Beatles. The soon-to-explode group, which had not yet conquered America (was there ever such a time?) had just finished the historic 585 minute-recording of their seminal "Please Please Me" album, and now, a few weeks later, they were in the studio looking to record a single. They recorded "From Me To You," "Thank You Girl" and, to kill left over time, "One After 909." This version of "909" was completely revamped — it was slowed down from the frenetic "Ooom-PAH Ooom-PAH" rhythm of the 1960 version, and sung with a swagger and confidence (and flawless vocal blending) that let you know that this was indeed the Beatles, and not Your Father’s Quarrymen. But poor George, the late bloomer, played the stinkiest solo on this version. In the beginning, before he grew up, George could come out with charmingly awkward, jerky leads ("I Saw Her Standing There" being a prime example) but also, pure teenage finger-fumbling as well. The version from this day is an exercise in the latter. It’s so bad, the solo, that it’s laughable, prompting John to ask George incredulously after the take: "What kind of solo was THAT?"
Fast forward six years: The Beatles, exhausted, have blown the world’s mind with Sergeant Pepper and each other’s patience with The White Album. Paul is chirping away to a completely disinterested John and company, saying "come on, let’s put on a show!" Nobody cares. Paul says "let’s make a movie!" Nobody cares, even more. To quiet Paul down, they all shuffle, desultorily, to Twickenham Studios, where George gets shocked by microphones, John stares into space and chews gum (and Yoko), and Paul gesticulates wildly with his beard and upper body, trying to get someone — anyone — to do something rocking.
Somehow, in the middle of this disaster, someone starts playing "One After 909." It makes sense, because to the extent anyone is paying attention, the theme of the day is "Get Back" to "The Beatles As Nature Intended." "909" is that. It is not fancy, it is not clever, it is just a dumb little rocker.
Soon, because after all, we are talking about The Beatles, the song is in good — no, excellent — shape. And it isn’t the 1963 version, it is the Quarrymen one from the way back machine, from John’s living room, all those years ago. AND IT ROCKS! Billy Preston adds funky keyboards all over the place. John and Paul are inseparably in each other’s vocal pockets, as they have been for years by this time. And George? Well, George plays a solo and guitar licks that blow the roof off — literally. They are all on the roof, in fact, wearing their wives’ coats (Ringo looks gloriously incongruous in red vinyl), and they are rocking out. It is pure joy to watch. Nobody is sniping at anyone; the lawsuits have not begun; Yoko hasn’t yet invaded Mars. And when you look carefully, at least at Paul, you see that he means it — he is playing and singing with the joy and energy of the same 15 year old that either wrote this song, or helped write this song, or whatever it is…..
But what is it now?
Can the ukulele transcend time & space?
Today’s 15 year olds, the great grandchildren of the fathers of 909, now make Dubstep. The Great Cav reinterprets the song in a style that alludes to 1950’s America, 1960’s England 1970’s Jamaica and 21st Century Planet Earth.
It rocks and rolls and skanks and shanks. It is timely and timeless and still the singer can’t find that train.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Ok heres info.
Cav from the roots rebel rousers DOUBLE-05. Dubversive. Nattytude. Superphonic.
Born Norf Londinium.
A Tottenham man to the core.
Child of Jamaicans. Adopted by Brooklyn. Resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Quotes " I’m glad my Roots are showing !"
" Give skanks and praise"
from Let It Be,
released August 14, 2012
Ukulele Version #153 recorded December 2nd 2011
Cav Manning – Vocals
David Barratt – Ukulele and everything else
Produced by David Barratt at The Abattoir Of Good Taste, NYC