Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I stand before you to defend the reputation of the Beatles’ 1964 cover of “Mr. Moonlight.” Since its first appearance on Beatles for Sale, fans and critics have derided the track as corny, cheesy, and overdone, unworthy of the band’s otherwise stellar recordings.
Music theorist Alan W. Pollack summarizes common criticisms: “It must be something about the self-consciously campy vocal, lugubrious Hammond organ, and generally queasy blend of dooh-whop [sic] and Latin musical styles.” But is “Mr. Moonlight” guilty of these crimes? Should it be labeled as one of the worst Beatles songs of all time? Its backstory and a closer look at the Beatles’ performance may influence your musical deliberations.
First, I present the facts of the case:
In 1962, bluesman William “Willie” Lee Perryman’s group Dr. Feelgood and the Interns (pictured below) issued a single appropriately titled “Dr. Feelgood.” The b-side, written by Interns guitarist Roy Lee Johnson, was a bluesy ballad entitled “Mr. Moonlight.” Neither song charted, but the Beatles discovered the obscure track, similarly to how they found unfairly neglected American R&B artists Arthur Alexander and Larry Williams.
By the time the band embarked on their stint in Hamburg, they decided to incorporate little-known covers into their stage act to separate them from competing groups. When playing gigs like the Star Club in 1962, they would play few originals and more offbeat covers like “Besame Mucho,” “Lend Me Your Comb,” and, of course, “Mr. Moonlight.”
In just two years, the Beatles found themselves at the center of the Beatlemania hurricane. While securing material for their fourth studio album Beatles for Sale, they resurrected some of the songs from their early set lists, one of them being “Mr. Moonlight.” Fans may be surprised to learn that producer George Martin voiced no objection to this choice, as it became a popular number for “beat groups” of the time. The Hollies recorded their version of the tune in 1964, and acts such as the Lovin’ Spoonful and Aretha Franklin drew inspiration from Dr. Feelgood and the Interns. Since “Mr. Moonlight” had received enthusiastic responses at early live shows, the Beatles apparently felt the song would fare well on an album.
Recording took place during two days: August 14, when they recorded four takes; and October 18, when they recorded four more. John Lennon sang lead and played acoustic rhythm guitar; Paul McCartney sang harmony vocals and played bass and the organ; George Harrison performed lead guitar and played African drums; and Ringo Starr rounded out the four on percussion. In his book Here, There and Everywhere, EMI recording engineer Geoff Emerick recalled Lennon recording his vocal part: “His searing vocal introduction sent shivers down my spine, even though it took him several tries to nail it,” he wrote.
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Instead of Harrison playing a slide guitar on the last two takes, McCartney performed a dramatic Hammond organ solo. Emerick claimed that previously Harrison experienced trouble executing the guitar solo: “Not the notes he was playing, but the odd, sped-up tremolo sound he was using, in faithful imitation of the Dr. Feelgood version that had been a minor hit a couple of years previously.” While Lennon and Emerick approved of the unconventional sound, Martin “insisted that it was simply too weird. After some discussion, it was decided to overdub a cheesy organ solo instead. Even though I loathed the sound, I was most impressed to see Paul playing it — up until that point, I’d had no idea that he could even play keyboards.” When editing commenced on October 27, Martin and engineer Norman Smith created the final version by merging takes four and eight, then mixing for mono and stereo.
Since Beatles for Sale’s release, the prosecution — or critics, in this case — have heaped scorn upon the cut. AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine dubbed it “arguably the worst thing the group ever recorded.” Pitchfork’s Tom Ewing seemed at a loss to describe the song, as he figured somehow “the ugliness of its organ solo [was] surely deliberate.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I can understand how the straight-out-of-a-roller rink sound of the Hammond organ tainted the track. But should “Mr. Moonlight” be found guilty of cheesiness because of one flaw? No, and I ask that the following be entered into evidence:
• Exhibit A: Lennon’s vocal performance. Can anyone make a better case for Lennon being one of the great rock vocalists by hearing his opening line? When he shouts “Mr. Moonlight,” one can hear his cords shredding a la “Twist and Shout.” This technique perfectly sets the mood for such heart-rending lines as “Mr. Moonlight, come again please; here I am on my knees, begging if you please — and the nights you don’t come my way, I’ll pray and pray more each day.” Interestingly, Lennon clearly based his singing closely on the original recording. Listen to the phrasing in the Dr. Feelgood version here.
• Exhibit B: The group’s harmonies. Beatles for Sale tracks like “No Reply” and “Baby’s in Black” llustrate how much Lennon and McCartney had developed their close harmonies. As this track fades out, one can hear the duo experimenting with chord changes and different harmonies on the title phrase alone.
• Exhibit C: The Beatles’ original live version. Judging from an admittedly murky recording from their 1962 Star Club appearance, the group’s original intent was to hone the song’s rougher edges. While Dr. Feelgood and the Interns emphasized the bluesy, R&B feel of the track, the Beatles highlighted its pure rock elements. In the live recording, Harrison plays the guitar solo, which maintains the song’s consistency. When Martin substituted the Hammond organ on the studio version, it totally destroyed “Mr. Moonlight’s” moody atmosphere. In retrospect, the group should have stood their ground and stuck with Harrison’s melodic guitar solo.
As you begin deliberations, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to put aside all prejudices as you pull out your Beatles for Sale copy. Focus on Lennon’s shiver-inducing vocals, the patented Beatles harmonies, and Harrison and Starr’s gentle percussion. Think of McCartney’s Hammond organ solo as a rare misstep that should not reflect badly upon “Mr. Moonlight’s” general sound. Find the track not guilty of being one of the Beatles’ worst songs, “’cause we love you, Mr. Moonlight.”