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Excerpt from piece on the Beatles' "Julia"

Friday 9/15/23

This will be in Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan. I need to do some work on it over the next few days, but this book may be up around 100,000 words now.

As the singer says, “Julia” is “the song of love,” and the definite article matters. Though we have all manner of labels for what we ascribe as love’s assorted subcategories, love is a free-flowing totality. We enter into its current and are swept along, having given ourselves over to a power beyond us.

Lennon’s vocal delivery augments the concept. There’s a psychedelic component in certain phrases—“Her hair of floating sky is shimmering”—but this is no hallucinogenic odyssey; we’re in the natural world, where nature reveals her meaning via an unpredictable visual artistry that informs our methods of perception, both outwardly and inwardly.

“Julia” is a brave song, because in that delivery we hear a singer willing to be transported, who need not dictate the laws of his own artistry. Lennon could make that which was gentle resonate with cyclonic power. He didn’t do it frequently, but some of his most sublime vocal moments involve the deployment of what can be thought of as his river voice, where one state of being flows into another, as if the singer has figured out the interconnectedness of it all.

The Esher demo is the stone at the bottom of the lake that has only recently gotten there. It’s not a smooth stone yet. One wonders what Lennon’s bandmates thought when hearing the number at Harrison’s house on that day. The Beatles had decided to let their hair down with each other to a more pronounced degree than before on an album. It was like they collectively agreed that they’d each show their most naked selves, and no judgement would be passed.

Sometimes that vulnerability took the form of trying out a style of music as with McCartney and “Helter Skelter.” Other times it was visiting a place that the people who knew one of these men best—like the other three knew Lennon—had accepted was a very hard place for that individual to go to.

Lennon’s acoustic guitar was an integral part of the sound of A Hard Day’s Night. It’s the underrated component of that album’s basso continuo, but he didn’t have many other key acoustic guitar contributions, which also makes “Julia” notable.

There’s an innocence in that guitar accompaniment on the White Album version of the song—clean earnestness. The guitar, like the voice, is of that riverine quality, and they join as one. On a take of “Don’t Let Me Down,” Lennon asked Starr for a formidable racket on the drums so that he had the courage to come screaming in. On “Julia,” the guitar fosters emotional valor. Like any great work of art, “Julia” is a risk, one which Lennon’s accompaniment makes it easier to take.

The rehearsal versions of the song paradoxically convey even more. With each, Lennon’s voice is as vulnerable and open as it ever got. The White Album version of “Julia” is chary by comparison, when on its own it’s anything but.

There are four other instances of Lennon utilizing a version of this voice—the first take of “Yes It Is,” when he’s not “officially” singing and is instead laying down a guide vocal; the sixth take of “Across the Universe,” a song in which words, phrases, ideas flow into other words, phrases, ideas to such a degree that the lyric makes official note of it; the first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever” in all of its ethereal introspection; and the instantly haunting, shake-you-by-the-soul first take of “A Day in the Life.”

What do these performances have in common? They’re early iterations, of course. Pre-versions. They’re less official, more like a near-whispered conversation with a cherished friend late at night than the transcribed statement in court.


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