DIY 33 1/3 Books

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.

Following up on my post about the 33 1/3 book series, I forgot to mention a discovery I made recently. Using Wikipedia, you can have a sort of low-rent, roll-your-own 33 1/3 experience, at least with a lot of popular recordings. For many albums on Wikipedia, there's not only an entry for the album itself, but one for each (or many) of the tracks on the album. As an experiment, I chose “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) and Brian Eno's “Before and After Science.” There's a lengthy entry on The White Album, along with a fairly detailed entry for each track. For “Before and After Science,” there's only a single, brief entry. So, at least for The White Album, I was able to use my method of listening to each track, reading the Wikipedia entry, then listening to the track again. Of course, with Wikipedia, it's hit and miss on the quality and accuracy of the entries, and a lot of the track entries don't delve very deeply into the details of the compositions themselves; they're more anecdotal. On The White Album test, I did discover some interesting stuff, including: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da Arguably one of the worst Beatles songs, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was Paul's idea of a reggae tune. John Lennon hated the song, calling it "Paul's granny shit." He left the studio as they struggled with different tempos and styles (not in the Wikipedia entry, but is the rumor that it was Ringo who couldn't understand nor establish a decent reggae beat) only to return a few hours later declaring that he was good and truly fucked up, sitting down at the piano, and banging out the piano intro you hear on the record. Helter Skelter “Helter Skelter “ was written after McCartney read an article in Guitar Player magazine where Pete Townsend said "I Can See for Miles," was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song The Who had ever recorded. “Helter Skelter” was The Beatles' attempt at the same. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill “This song mocks the actions of a young American named Richard A. Cooke III, known as Rik who was visiting his mother, Nancy Cooke de Herrera, at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh at the same time that the Beatles were staying with the Maharishi. According to his mother, both she and her son maintained friendly relations with all of the Beatles except for Lennon, who by Cooke de Herrera's account was "a genius" but distant and contemptuous of the wealthy American Cooke de Herrera and her clean-cut, college-attending son. According to Nancy's life account, Beyond Gurus, the genesis of the song occurred when she, Rik, and several others, including native guides, set out upon elephants to hunt for a tiger (allegedly presented by their Indian guide as a traditional act). The pack of elephants was attacked by a tiger, which was shot by Rik. Rik was initially proud of his quick reaction and posed for a photograph with his prize. However, Rik's reaction to the slaying was mixed, as he has not hunted since. Nancy claims that all present recognized the necessity of Rik's action, but that John Lennon's reaction was scornful and sarcastic, asking Rik: "But wouldn't you call that slightly life-destructive?" The song was written by Lennon as mocking what he saw as Rik's bravado and unenlightened attitude. “Lennon later told his version of the story in a Playboy interview, stating that: "[Bungalow Bill] was written about a guy in Maharishi's meditation camp who took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God. There used to be a character called Jungle Jim, and I combined him with Buffalo Bill. It's sort of a teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke." Mia Farrow, who was also at the ashram during the period supports Lennon's story in her autobiography; she writes, "Then a self-important, middle-aged American woman arrived, moving a mountain of luggage into the brand-new private bungalow next to Maharishi's along with her son, a bland young man named Bill. People fled this newcomer, and no one was sorry when she left the ashram after a short time to go tiger hunting, unaware that their presence had inspired a new Beatles' song - 'Bungalow Bill.'” Dear Prudence “The song is about actress Mia Farrow's sister, Prudence, who was present when the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Prudence, focused on meditation, stayed in her room for the majority of their stay. Lennon, who was worried that she was depressed, wrote this song for her, inviting her to "come out to play". While the Beatles left the course, Prudence, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and others, stayed and became Transcendental Meditation (or TM) teachers. Prudence now teaches elementary school along with her husband, and they both still practice TM and advanced versions of it.”


  1. Wow, synchronicity. I was on Wikipedia’s white album pages just last week when I was considering cashing in and writing Revolutions 2-8. It’s surprising how well documented some topics are on Wikipedia.

  2. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
    Arguably one of the worst Beatles songs…

    Here, here! Of late, I’ve been struggling to see Paul as an equal songwriter to John or even George. Reviewing both his Beatles work and post-Beatles, he seems to have worked from a less inspired place overall.

  3. Oddly, all of the facts mentioned above are in the 33 1/3 book on Let It Be by Steve Matteo, as many of the songs from the White Album were started during the Twickenham sessions.

  4. I like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Its one of the 4 Beatles songs I have on my phone. I like the carefree happiness of the song. I’ve certainly never though of it as a reggae song though.

  5. It’s really bizarre to listen to the song after you know it was intended as, or at least inspired by, reggae. Man, that is SO not understanding reggae! No dread beat, no skankin’, mon!

    BTW: I swore that when I did my little DIY 33 1/3 test, a month or so ago, that the Wikipedia entry claimed that the “Desmond” in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da referred to reggae/ska legend Desmond Dekker. It’s not in the entry anymore (or maybe I saw it elsewhere) and I can’t find in the histoty, but it is in Dekker’s Wikipedia entry.

  6. …but is the rumor that it was Ringo who couldn’t understand nor establish a decent reggae beat

    I have no trouble accepting the veracity of this rumour. None at all.

  7. It was Dennis Wilson who was Manson’s buddy, not Mike Love. Love is still a dick, but can’t be blamed for that.

  8. wow weird, i just read the same wiki article about Ob-La-Di this morning for some unknown reason. I found it quite interesting. The Joyce Bond version on the first Tighten Up comp is pretty cool!!

  9. Maybe it’s time to mention the seemingly plausible suggestion (never admitted even in Lennon’s “frank” interviews) that “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” referred to the notoriously promiscuous female Beatles fans in that part of the world. “And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

    Now, *there’s* a song that never quite sounds the same after reviewing it in that light.

  10. Who even plays drums on Ob-la-di? Is it ringo? IIRC Paul played drums on a few songs on that album.

  11. Who even plays drums on Ob-la-di? Is it Ringo? IIRC Paul played drums on a few songs on that album.

    Whoops. Shoulda read the wiki…

  12. McCartney plays drums on “Back in the USSR”; Ringo had left the band at that point. Paul also plays drums on “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”, but he’s the only Beatle on that song anyway.

  13. I think the drumming on “Ob-la-di” is one of the few times Ringo was out of his element. If you read the Ringo Starr article on Wiki (plus the excellent track-by-track analysis “Revolution in the Head” by Ian MacDonald, itself the authoritive source for most of those Wiki articles on individual Beatle songs), Starr is both a popularly underrated drummer and pretty much universally acclaimed as a drummer professionally. His influence on countless drummers is critical. He isn’t a flashy drummer but he’s gifted and was the perfect drummer for the Beatles (as it’s been commented mainy times before, just imagine how wrong-sounding it would have been had Keith Moon been the Beatles’ drummer). Just listen to “Rain” and tell me he wasn’t a great drummer.

  14. And please, McCartney wasn’t Lennnon’s equal? Listen to Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road, plus “Penny Lane”. McCartney is peerless (well, his only peer as a songwriter is Lennon of course). Lennon and McCartney worked off each other when they stopped writing together: they were in a healthy competition and each relied on the other equally. Yes, McCartney’s solo output is underwhelming, but you know what? So is Lennon’s. After Plastic Ono Band it goes downhill fast. The Beatles all needed each other. After it was over, aside from a few early triumphs (All Things Must Past, Ringo, some individual tracks from McCartney’s first few albums, pre-Wings, Plastic Ono Band), they just weren’t as good as they were as a whole.

  15. @ #16,17 Freshacconci
    You said it bro!Total agreement on both counts.
    Personally I don’t have much love for Ob-La-Di.The Beatles are great when they’re not trying too hard. I love the White Album – it’s their best IMHO – but I usually skip over Ob-La-Di. It’s the kind of sing they would cover on Lawrence Welk.

  16. @ROBULUS: Too funny.

    I grew up listening to my older bro’s White Album on vinyl. The free poster and all. I dig it.

    But being a child of the ’80s, I always preferred Siouxsie and the Banshees version of ‘Dear Prudence’.

  17. Don’t believe everything Lennon says. He changes stories and makes them up. Many Beatles songs just where word plays based on something they read. Doesn’t mean the song is really about that.

  18. As a child in 1950’s America, there was a raunchy
    song ( for boys) called “Bungaloo Bill the Sailor”–which was probably a variant of a real sailor’s sea shanty.

    Surely, it was known by boys in Liverpool, England.
    So, the title of the Beatles song–at least–predates the claimed origin story

    True enough, but as someone who has dealt with media types asking questions about why something was done or for what reason I can honestly say even if you simply say: “Look, there’s no deep meaning…” people will explain it in some way.

    It’s the nature of arts. Artists create based on an urge. Fans like it but want an explanation. Entertainment pubs have filled this desire by creating a narrative often where no narrative exists.

    So don’t just blame John Lennon. Blame the desire of the masses for an explanation and the willingness to swallow any story fed to them.

  20. You won’t find track-by-track Wikipedia summaries for more obscure releases, Gareth, but for anything Beatles (or Clash, Hendrix, etc.) a little track perusal can be quite entertaining. The White Album in particular was a testy recording session, leading to a good many anecdotes.

    But what’s up with the hate of “Ob-la-di?” It might be a little corny, but it’s not as bland as any of the mindless blues riffs the Beatles tried like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” The White Album is great because of its flaws – its ragged schizophrenia and backstory gives it significance, but it’s not as consistent as Abbey Road nor does it have the cultural significance of a Sgt. Pepper’s.

  21. Now I wish I hadn’t read that Wikipedia summary for the White Album, I really didn’t want to find out what the original lyrics to Sexy Sadie were.

    In addition, it sounds like the Magic Alex guy who was helping the rumors along didn’t seem very noble himself, what with his later attempt to get with a traumatized Cynthia after getting her all liquored up.

  22. What would be really fun would to be to write track-by-track entries for an album that didn’t exist, sorta like Lester Bangs used to do in his reviews of real bands.

  23. #27 “an album that didn’t exist”

    AllMusic guide ( used to have a lot of those kinds of reviews, some quiet funny.

  24. My list of the worst Beatles songs would include several from the White Album, but I really don’t think that “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” would make the list; it’s just a fun little pop tune that’s only bad if you think that the likes of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” are the height of Art.

  25. Nobody said anything about “the height of Art” but “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is an amazing rock song. The main problem with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is that it’s a fun little song that seems to have grown in stature for some odd reason. As a bit of piffle on the White Album, it’s a cute diversion, and its twisting of gender adds a little bit of depth (not much, but enough). Unfortunately, McCartney, a perfectionist, would often try the patience of the others with songs that just weren’t worth it (see also “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), and so the recording was prolonged and he created too much ill-will within the group (i.e. Ringo walking out). For some reason, the song’s more famous than many other album-only tracks (Revolver‘s “For No One” is McCartney at his best; how many people who know “”Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” know that one as well?). Because it’s so light and goofy, it’s been played a great deal and was also a hit for another British band soon after the White Album was released. So people tend to focus on the awfulness of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, which kind of elevates it in a twisted way. I can listen to it in the context of the whole album, but I can’t imagine ever putting just that song on to give it a listen. I can’t remember off-hand, was it part of the “Blue Album” The Beatles 1967-1970? If so, that didn’t help matters. It’s too famous for what it is.

  26. I don’t hate “Ob-La-Di” I don’t hate any Beatles tune. It’s just among my least favorite, and given what they apparently were going for, it was something of a “failure.”

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