Long Tall Sally – The Beatles
Well, this isn’t actually by the Beatles, insofar as they didn’t write it. Little Richard wrote it, and sang it very well, in F, with his trademark panache. But of course, in the late 50s, Little Richard wasn’t so well known and revered as he is now. Back in those days of course, it was sadly not as acceptable to embrace a black rock and roll artist – hence the rise and rise of Pat Boone’s famous “lift musak” versions of some of his songs. These were, unanimously awful – and I’m sure must have made Mr Penniman very rich, and very sick.
By the time the Beatles got around to recording this song it was 1964, and they were the biggest group in Europe, and about to hit America like some kind of Scouse hurricane. In their suits and neat haircuts, with their cheeky smiles and boyish charm etc etc they were everyone’s favourite boys next door. Sure, people knew they’d formed in working class Merseyside, and people knew they’d played for years in Hamburg, a dingy city that stank of sex, drugs, and pure rock and roll, but the Beatles of ‘64 were a million light years away from the roughshod gang of school dropouts who had landed on the Rieperbahn just 4 years earlier.
So, when people heard they were a rock and roll band, really there wasn’t that much in there to support that. Sure, there were a few hearty screams and cheers on the first album, and Lennon had raised more than a few eyebrows with his throat destroying rendering of Twist and Shout, McCartney had written a 12 bar classic in Can’t Buy Me Love, and there had been certainly the odd moment to suggest that the “clean-cut” boys could mix it up with the best of them. But they’d never attempted something like this before.
Whatever Rock and Roll means to you, there is a thrill to it, an edge, a dirty side that sends tingles up your spine. It isn’t friendly, it isn’t nicey-nice, but it welcomes you in, you feel like you’re in a gang. It’s a glorious celebration when it’s done well, and a most glorious release. Long Tall Sally is one of the trademark songs of the genre. A fast number about sex, and some sex, and then a bit more sex, and Richard’s version was already pretty racy, pretty high-paced, and pretty glorious. But not many people would have bet their mortgages on a podgy kid from Liverpool with doe eyes and a penchant for show tunes and ballads taking hold of it and wrenching it to life in the way that McCartney does here.
There’s a very famous school of thought that tells you that McCartney was the mawkish sentimental one and Lennon was the rebellious rock and roller. On one hand, there’s evidence to support this on McCartney’s side, see: And I Love Her, Yesterday, For No One, The Long and Winding Road and many others. But where are Lennon’s great rock and roll numbers? His most famous rock and roll vocals (Twist and Shout, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Rock and Roll Music, Money, Slow Down) were all covers. And bear in mind McCartney also sang, and wrote, Can’t Buy Me Love, Helter Skelter, Birthday, I’ve Got a Feeling, She’s a Woman, Why Don’t We Do It In the Road, Sgt Pepper, Drive My Car, & I’m Down, to name but a few. At the same time, let’s not forget that Lennon’s writing credits include Julia, Girl, Across The Universe, Ticket To Ride, I’m a Loser, Norwegian Wood, Goodnight, In My Life, Yes It Is, This Boy and If I Fell. Rock and roller, eh? Yeah, alright John.
Well, at any rate, the myth that McCartney wasn’t maybe robust enough to capture the true fire of Rock and Roll was blown 500 miles out of the water in the first 10 seconds of Long Tall Sally. Shifting the key up to a nodule-inducing G major, McCartney basically bundles caution up and catapults it into the wind, and takes no prisoners as he leads the band through this breathtaking rock and roll epic. It was done in one take, and it’s a good job, there may have been nothing left of any of them after and outburst of energy like this.
And to hear this song, which the entire group loved so dearly (just watch any live performance of it if you don’t believe me, they can’t get enough, even Lennon) performed this way, with all 4 members of the world’s greatest band absolutely at the top of their game, really genuinely moves my very soul. I can’t listen to this without being transported away to a really wonderful place. Not literally, of course, although that would certainly be much cooler. This recording is one of the few genuine windows into the past of the band, back when they made what Lennon called their best stuff – “what we generated back then, was amazing”. And he wasn’t wrong.