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06th May, 2020

'Dig A Pony' by Mike Brocken - #LetItBe50

For a song that Lennon might have considered a ‘throwaway’ (later describing it in September 1980 as ‘garbage’) ‘Dig a Pony’ has a rather convoluted history as far as the 'Let It Be' album was concerned. Its original title was ‘All I Want is You’ and seems to have been something of a project with John working out his ideas both musically and lyrically out with the studio – much to the vexation of Paul McCartney, one might suggest. Lennon brought ‘Dig a Pony’ to the first day of what proved to be the ‘Let it Be’/Get Back’ rehearsals on 2nd January, 1969 and it appears that the bulk of the lyrics were already in place. Barry Miles has suggested that Paul McCartney ‘had no input on ‘Dig a Pony’, which was entirely John’s’ – and it certainly sounds like it. Once McCartney had arrived (late) at that ‘first’ rehearsal session (attended initially only by Lennon and Harrison – who worked their way through ‘Dig a Pony’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’ while waiting), Lennon placed the song to one side without Paul even hearing it. 

‘Dig a Pony’ re-appeared at Twickenham Studios on January 7th 1969. What ensued was (apparently) a thoroughly uninspiring rendition of the song by all four Beatles. It was Paul McCartney’s first stab at the song and he had a crack at singing harmonies and playing a bass run or two but was, it appears, unimpressed. John later related that "Paul yawned and plays boogie, and I immediately say, 'Oh, does anybody want to do a fast one?' That's how I am. So year after year that begins to wear you down."

Between 10th and 21st January, 1969 George Harrison left the Beatles. He was persuaded to re-join and upon his return as a playing member a complete run-through of ‘Dig a Pony’ resulted: in the basement studios at Apple Headquarters, Savile Row. During the session John finally finished the lyrics to his satisfaction and George sorted out his guitar solo. One of the takes recorded that day included the humorous comment: ‘ ‘I Dig A Pygmy' by Charles Hawtry and the Deaf-Aids ... phase one in which Doris gets her oats’. Charles Hawtrey was a famous British comedy actor known mostly for his appearances in the ‘Carry On…’ movies. Lennon’s comment eventually made it onto the 'Let it Be' album, but as an introduction to the song ‘Two of Us’. Although this appears to be simply one of Lennon’s throwaway remarks, it should also be contextualised: recording and rehearsing under extreme personal circumstances, i.e. irony might have been his only release valve from his deteriorating relationships with the imploding Beatles. A small edit from this ‘Dig a Pony’ rehearsal came to be included in the 'Let It Be' movie and shows a predictably discouraging moment in this (for this writer) dispiriting film. 

Notwithstanding the above rather gloomy information, I have never believed Ian MacDonald’s idea that ‘Dig a Pony’ was merely one of those self-indulgent Lennon songs: "inconsequential […] with a lyric celebrating counter-cultural claims that society's old values and taboos were dead, that life was a game and art a free-for-all, and (especially) that words meant whatever the hell one wished them to." In fact I feel that the song has a great deal to do with John’s (by that stage) extremely intense relationship with Yoko, combined with his painful dis-satisfactions concerning the hopeless trajectory of what was once ‘his’ band. 

Apparently, John did describe the lyrics in ‘Dig a Pony’ as ‘fun with words’ and ‘nonsense’, but I think he was trying to kid us. His intelligent ‘Spike Milligan-style’ word associations are quite evident and while at times he almost appears to be making things up as he goes along, there are great lyrical strengths. For example ‘you can penetrate any place you go’ is (quite literally) an extremely pointed and/or sexually-charged remark with several potential interpretations. His Dylan-esque internal rhyming is also very strong, with the words ‘celebrate’, ‘penetrate’, ‘radiate’, ‘imitate’, ‘indicate’ and ‘syndicate’ being spat out with affirmative reiteration, suggesting that the music is a vehicle for his extremely proficient, rather than ‘nonsensical’ statements. 

If such word-play illustrates John’s frustrations, then the primal rock ‘n’ roll musical elements communicated within the song, together with his equally primal vocal grain also signify his irritation with the entire Beatles/‘Get Back/Let it Be’ pop star process. In its perhaps ever-so-slightly shoddier micro-moments the song is occasionally messy and signifying fatigue –I think that’s what Lennon intended i.e. to be seen (and heard) to be ‘real[ly]’ fed-up. ‘Dig a Pony’ was one of the 5 songs performed on the Apple rooftop and works surprisingly well live (although the recording was later tinkered with, I think); perhaps its’ musical ‘looseness’ appropriately fits the seemingly ad hoc nature of the gig. I have always chosen to presume (but do not know, of course) that song was also a foil for McCartney’s ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’. 

In conclusion I would have to admit that ‘Dig a Pony’ was one of the first songs I ever learnt! Following the purchase of my Eko acoustic guitar, I splashed-out on the Alan Aldridge-illustrated Beatles Complete Songbook (Guitar Edition). Not only was it far from complete, but was also at times musically incorrect and obviously notated by a pianist who had probably never heard of part-chords or a capo! Nevertheless, I was delighted when I came across ‘Dig a Pony’. Lennon’s clever assemblage of two (incomplete) rock ‘n’ roll/blues chord progressions made complete sense to me. It’s in Amajor and uses A, D and E7 chords; but two other blues chords in F# (F#m and Bm) intervene, creating a progression towards a climaxing rock Gmajor, before the blues turnaround chord of E7 returns us to A. The chorus of G, D and A then fits like a glove. I even improvised: realising that I could play the intro in 3/4 time, but then boogie-it-up in 12/8 ‘Johnny and the Moondogs’-style – Thanks Johnnie!

About Mike Brocken: After many years as a senior lecturer in Popular Music Studies at Liverpool Hope University (where he inaugurated the world’s first Masters programme concerning the Beatles), in 2019 Dr Mike Brocken returned to independent lecturing, broadcasting and research across a range of popular music fields. He presents Folkscene on BBC Radio Merseyside, the longest-running specialist music radio show in British broadcasting history and is currently lecturing in Popular Music at Wirral 3LS. In 2018 Lexington Press published his work (co-written with Jeff Daniels) concerning the partially-hidden history of Black Liverpudlian musician Gordon Stretton, who helped take jazz to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. He has also researched and written several texts concerning popular music histories, Beatles tourism, and even rugby league in Liverpool, and has written biographical works concerning Burt Bacharach and Joe Flannery. His contributions to academic popular music studies are vast and he has given myriad conference papers throughout his time in academia. Mike lives in Chester with his wife Chris.

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