Shakespeare would be the first to tell you: he didn’t write “closet dramas.” His plays were never intended to be read and studied. They were meant to be enjoyed and experienced as actors brought them to life with costumes, facial expressions, body language, and gestures. Shakespeare — robbed of the magic that live theatre supplies — is grossly misunderstood. What is meant to be tongue-in-cheek satire (expressed with a clever roll of the eye) comes across as straight drama. What is meant to be suggestive and naughty loses that double entendre when the impish, repeated lifting of the eyebrows is missing from the equation.
The same is true with many of The Beatles’ songs. In 2019, we’re apt to forget that much of the Fabs’ Cavern Club repertoire was performance-oriented. The songs only made sense when acted out on the boards. Stripped of the shenanigans that the live singers supplied, the songs later fell flat.
You’re thinking, I imagine, of “Three Cool Cats.” Yes, exactly! Liverpool and Hamburg audiences adored the number. But to “get it,” you had to be there. And when The Beatles performed “Youngblood,” you could clearly hear the dramatic roles they assumed in their voices. Can you imagine how much more hilarious this song actually was when audiences watched them dramatize their parts? And yes, the same goes for a Cavern favorite, “The Sheik of Araby.” The boys’ clowning and cavorting “put the song over.” Remove those vital ingredients, and well…
As The Beatles performed the same songs over and over, they sought variety. Even numbers that could be delivered quite seriously, such as “Bésame Mucho,” were hammed up, now and again, to take on clever, comedic tones. The “doo-doo-um-doo’s” in “A Taste of Honey” often — with a sly look here and a sideways glance there — became quite funny. The Beatles (who had cut their teeth on the vaudevillian Liverpool Music Hall scene) knew how to make an audience giggle and smile. They were, above all, Scousers with a dry, subtle wit that Americans found only in Jack Benny’s nuanced facial expressions or his sardonic, “Really!” But The Beatles and their Liverpool audiences were masters of sly comedy.
One of their most requested “performance numbers” was a Lennon favorite, “Mr. Moonlight.” Everyone loved it. In England it was a cult favorite; in fact, almost every band that John knew included the song in their playlist.
When Centralhatchee, Georgia’s high-school-aged blues writer, Roy Lee Johnson, scribbled “Mr. Moonlight” onto a scrap sheet of paper, he never imagined his three-verse moan would attract the attention of so many. In fact, he shelved the song for years as he moved north and sang with the Ohio Untouchables. Only after returning to the Deep South (Atlanta, 1962) did Johnson unearth “Mr. Moonlight,” giving it voice via Dr. Feelgood and the Interns (aka Piano Red) on Okeh Records 4-7144. You can hear Johnson’s song in its earliest rendition here:
But somehow, possibly via sailors in the port of Liverpool, the song made its way quickly to Northern British shores and was a hit with the skiffle/rock’n’roll bands dotting the early 1960s landscape.
Related: “The Beatles Underground”
Cavern Club mates of The Beatles, The Merseybeats, (originally the Mavericks, but renamed The Merseybeats in 1962 by Cavern Compère, Bob Wooler) grabbed the number. They offered it up as an overly dramatic, hint-of-a-smile-at-the-corners-of-the-mouth show-stopper. By 1963, they were performing it in almost every session on the Mathew Street boards. Here is their rendition:
Similarly, over in nearby Manchester, Graham Nash and Alan Clarke scooped up the song for The Hollies. How did they hear the number? Well, we know that in January 1963, they played Liverpool’s Cavern Club. Did they hear The Merseybeats or The Beatles perform it during their sojourn to the port city? Or did the Merseybeats and The Beatles borrow the American-born song from them? It’s only conjecture at this point. (Regardless, here is the Hollies much-requested version of “Mr. Moonlight”:
We do know that throughout 1963, The Beatles performed the song again and again inside the low-slung, sweat-soaked limestone Cavern. And each time they acted it out, according to those who were there for a lunchtime or evening session, the rolling song actually gathered moss. It became dramatic and outlandish…hilarious. Cavern punters loved it.
So, in 1964, when The Beatles (on the very heels of the North American Tour and in the face of the oncoming Autumn U.K. Tour) were pressed for time and tracks for their new LP, Beatles for Sale, John thought “Mr. Moonlight” might be just the ticket. He knew he could deliver what Tim Riley would later refer to as “a full-throttle vocal attack.” He knew that his remarkable razored solo intro to the song was a mad favorite with the girls on the tour circuit. (And as late as 2001, was still pronounced by the author of The Beatles as Musicians, Dr. Walter Everett, as “a very promising intro” in “dirty full-voice”). John had seen the way myriad audiences reacted to his “gut energy” in the number. So, he pushed to record the cover song on that LP.
But what neither John Lennon nor William Shakespeare could control was the loss of brilliance that a song or a play faces when it is removed from its live stage performance. The subtle looks and the sly innuendo got lost in translation. The song suffered. Even though savvy critics such as Tim Riley comprehended that in “Mr. Moonlight, “the arranged vocal fade-out, with each repeat, is one last musical guffaw” many “everyday people” failed to grasp the intricately injected humor in the song. From the moment that Beatles for Sale was released, many thought the song odd. Less than great. A Beatle failing.
Let me encourage you to listen again. Listen for the exaggerated organ backing, a popular comedic ploy straight from the Merseyside music hall tradition. Listen to Ringo’s bonging tom- toms, almost a “pa-rum-dum-dum” signal for laughter. Sit back and smile over the vamped-up harmony backing that Paul gives the number. Envision what was happening on the stage.
But above all, don’t miss John Lennon’s far from insincere cry during the bridge of the song. Here, the little boy that no one seemed to love wails at the microphones of the world about the loneliness he endured during his childhood and teen years, about the sadness he carried with him throughout his life: “And the night you don’t come my way/ I pray and pray more each day…” It is, in the midst of comedy, an angst-filled confession. It’s a lump in the throat. It’s almost as unforgettable as his opening solo. Tim Riley tells us that John chose this song precisely because it “let him wear his heart on his sleeve in a way he never could have written for himself.” Indeed.
This song (borrowing one of my mother’s favorite lines) is “a little jewel.” It makes you smile and sigh. It is, in moments, hilarious; in others, it’s deeply tragic. The tears of a clown are the most poignant of all. And here, in “Mr. Moonlight,” John Lennon is an adept Pagliacci.
-Jude Southerland Kessler