John Lennon may have called it “a piece of rubbish,” but “Cry Baby Cry” symbolizes one of Lennon’s more underrated compositions. Written while in India, “Cry Baby Cry” serves as a twisted nursery rhyme, and he would return to the motif years later on Double Fantasy’s “Cleanup Time.” The 1968 tune landed on the White Album, and still intrigues with its unusual instrumentation and cryptic lyrics.
As has been well documented, the Beatles’ time studying under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India also produced a wealth of new material. According to Hunter Davies’ Beatles biography, Lennon’s inspiration for “Cry Baby Cry” drew from a television commercial. “I think I got them from an advert — ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy.’ I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it,” he told the author. Another probable source is the nursery rhyme “Sing A Song of Sixpence,” which contains lines very similar to “Cry Baby Cry” such as “The king was in his counting house counting out his money; the queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey.”
Finishing the track in India, Lennon brought it to George Harrison’s Esher home in May 1968; there, the group laid down several demos which would ultimately make up much of the White Album. Returning to Abbey Road Studios on July 15, 1968, the Beatles began work on “Cry Baby Cry”; according to the Beatles Bible, they filled four 30-minute tapes with numerous rehearsal takes. Unfortunately, this material was wiped during two subsequent recording sessions. The next day, the Beatles recorded ten additional takes — take one later surfaced on Anthology 3, and differed little from the final version. However, taken ten was deemed best, with Lennon on acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals, Paul McCartney on bass, and Ringo Starr on drums (Harrison did not participate in these sessions). Ultimately the group created two mixes of take ten, retaining the instrumentation but removing most of Lennon’s vocals. Take twelve was finally selected as the basis for the final version.
By this time, longtime Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick had walked out of the White Album sessions in protest; thus Ken Scott replaced Emerick on July 18. Under Scott and Martin’s guidance, Lennon performed new lead vocals while Martin added harmonium. McCartney laid down harmonies, Starr shook a tambourine, and Harrison rejoined them to play electric guitar and add sound effects. Mixing would not commence until October 15, when artificial double-tracking was implemented to strengthen the acoustic guitar section.
Interestingly, the White Album features a hidden coda to “Cry Baby Cry”: a song fragment informally titled “Can You Take Me Back.” An impromptu jam, the song derives from the September 16 “I Will” recording sessions. Not surprisingly, the percussion, acoustic guitar, and McCartney’s gentle vocals all closely resemble the White Album ballad. “Can You Take Me Back” does not directly relate to “Cry Baby Cry”; as Alan Pollack writes in his “Notes On” series: “The album context of ‘Can You Take Me Back’ is ambiguous, the song not being singled out per se on the track listing. Are we to consider it as a trailer to ‘Cry Baby Cry’ or a curtain raiser to ‘Revolution 9’?” An examination of the lyrics may provide some clues.
Lennon’s vocals stand front and center throughout the relatively simple tune, with lines resembling the aforementioned “Sing A Song of Sixpence”:
The king of Marigold was in the kitchen
Cooking breakfast for the queen.
The queen was in the parlor
Playing piano for the children of the king.
He continues painting a precious or “twee” image of a royal family, heavily emphasizing childlike themes:
The king was in the garden
Picking flowers for a friend who came to play.
The queen was in the playroom
Painting pictures for the children’s holiday.
As Lennon’s breathy voice narrates this charming scene, he introduces two more characters: the Duke and Duchess of Kirkcaldy, who arrive late for tea with the picture-perfect royal family.
Woven throughout this seemingly serene and unremarkable moment is the chorus: “Cry baby cry — make your mother sigh; she’s old enough to know better.” While this may echo the advertisement Lennon mentioned in Davies’ book, it also injects a sense of foreboding, as if something dark looms over this tranquility. The next eerie lines suggest as much:
At twelve o’clock a meeting round the table
For a séance in the dark.
With voices out of nowhere
Put on especially by the children for a lark.
This apparent supernatural element casts a shadow on the proceedings, although Lennon clarifies that the children may be pulling a prank on the grownups. Who is deceiving whom in this scenario? Note how Lennon portrays the duke and duchess as well as the king and queen as juvenile and simplistic. Their children do not play or paint—their parents do. Instead, the children become active only in order to fool the adults.
Indeed, “Cry Baby Cry” inverts the conventional nursery rhyme, suggesting turbulence in parent-child roles and relationships. Martin’s harmonium only enhances the quaintness — and, perhaps, false peacefulness — of this domesticity. Starr’s bombastic drums stress incongruity, that what lies beneath the surface of the quaint images may be something darker. Along with Lennon’s haunting voice, and McCartney’s descending bass lines, Starr’s drums may be the most important ingredient of an unusual tune.
He may have dismissed “Cry Baby Cry” as “rubbish,” but strangely he implemented a similar structure on the Double Fantasy song “Cleanup Time.” The following lyrics reverse the gender roles in “Sing A Song of Sixpence” and strongly resemble “Cry Baby Cry”:
The queen is in the counting house
Counting out the money
The king is in the kitchen
Making bread and honey
More can be said about the deeper meaning of “Cleanup Time,” but that merits a separate column.
“Cry Baby Cry” may not receive as much attention as other White Album tracks, but it perfectly embodies a Beatles trademark: turning musical conventions upside down, lending their own interpretations to traditional forms through alternate arrangements and at times unsettling lyrics.