This newly composed piece on the Beatles' "I'm Down" became an eleventh hour addition to Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan, which I like to summarize as the Beatles as literature and literature as the Beatles.
But then we get to 1965, and the Beatles, if you know where to look, were getting heavy. Lennon boasted that his “Ticket to Ride” was the first heavy metal number. A lot of that has to do with the lugubrious pacing—we’re not that far from the realm of Black Sabbath, but Sabbath couldn’t pen a tune like this. Lennon’s “Help!” thrashed like nothing had in popular music until its release. Harrison’s guitar seemed to channel the same super-charged electricity that Dr. Frankenstein put to work in the 1931 Boris Karloff picture. Lennon didn’t scream the song, but you can hear just how raw he makes his voice. Then we come to “I’m Down,” the Beatles’ stealth raver, on the B-side of the Lennon confessional. The song’s visibility—or lack thereof—is freighted with a certain irony. The Beatles used the number to close their Shea Stadium gig in August 1965, still the most famous show anyone has ever played in this country, with one primary act. Lennon commanded the organ, and was so amused by McCartney’s hell-for-leather vocal that he went full-on loon and played the thing with his elbows.
If you weren’t around at the time, you easily could have been unaware of “I’m Down” until the release of a double compilation called Rock ‘n’ Roll Music in 1976. It was left off the 1973 set, 1962-1966—otherwise known as the Red Album—which legions of Beatles fan grew up with, and still do, I bet. A teeth-cutter. Those in the know were miffed at the time, blaming Apple Records manager Allen Klein for the perceived cock-up. It featured later on the first of the Past Masters sets, a catch-all mostly of singles, along with the Long Tall Sally EP and a stray version of “Across the Universe.” Still, despite its closing pride of place at Shea at the apex of Beatlemania, you could have missed the “I’m Down” entirely.
The song is a joke-blues, delivered at then-radical volume. You might postulate it as “Helter Skelter” before “Helter Skelter.” The White Album song was McCartney’s riposte to the Who. He cited it as the Beatles’ “I Can See for Miles,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that “Miles” is sinister, clear-eyed, and leaping/peripatetic, and “Skelter” is quasi-menacing—tongue in cheek style—boggy, and plodding. Whatever—the amps were turned to 11.
“I’m Down” has a lighter, jocular quality because McCartney’s vocal exuberance tells us that the singer isn’t really that down. He’ll get over his girl laughing at him—if he hasn’t already—and we have the impression that he’s on this oft-mentioned ground rolling around with mirth, or simply the delight of good rock and roll, well-delivered. You know those guys who play guitar and are like, “Now it’s time to get on my knees and rock out”? That’s how McCartney sings “I’m Down,” only with that virtuoso voice of his. Lennon gets in on the joke as well, providing the cod-basso profundo response the same as he did, intriguingly, on the band’s cover of the Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” at the inglorious Decca audition—with Pete Best on drums—on January 1, 1962. From small acorns grow large Beatles.
For all of their compositional prowess, their studio mastery, their comfort with experimentation, their zest and acumen for innovation, the Beatles were an energy band. The best bands are. The best artists are energy artists. You experience energy in Walt Whitman’s verse, a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, a Bach fugue, a Pollock drip painting. Energy doesn’t mean volume, it doesn’t mean a fast pace, in and of themselves. It means a prevailing animation—undeniable evidence of the life force. The Beatles stay with us because of that life force, more than anything else. That energy is what kicks both “She Loves You” and “A Day in the Life” up into the pantheon’s pantheon. The Beatles-sphere. “I’m Down” is the garage rocker done by pros. The Beatles liked to say, “we can do this, we can do that, we can invent this other thing, what else do you want to see?” They liked to compete. They wanted other bands to know that they were better. They always wanted to get ahead, and leave the competition behind. Michael Jordan was an assassin as a basketball player. The Beatles were that way as a band.