"Hey Bulldog," Fanny
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
It may be the last time ever that a classical concert made the evening news. On Christmas Day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein stepped in front of a multinational orchestra and choir at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus to conduct a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, in celebration of the recent fall of the Berlin Wall. To say these were once-in-a-lifetime circumstances is an understatement; it’s not often the world gets to watch a fascist regime crumble under literal sledgehammers. And so, with the weight of the occasion behind him (not to mention the weight of being Leonard Effing Bernstein), he did something no one had had the nerve to do in two hundred years: he changed the words. Well, one word, really, but it was that word, the lynchpin of the entire fourth movement. For one day only, the “Freude” became “Freiheit,” turning poet Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy into an Ode to Freedom. It’s the sort of bravura, dick-swinging maneuver you can only attempt if you’re sure you can get away with it. But get away with it he did, thanks to a combination of the massive sweep of modern history, truckloads of public good will, and his own bulletproof reputation. Bernstein took what could have been a “how dare he?” catastrophe, and pulled out a triumph as grand as the Ninth Symphony itself.
There’s an unspoken contract that comes with covering someone else’s song. Yes, you’re welcome and even expected to make the song your own, but there’s a line you don’t cross, and it lies right at the spot where interpretation turns into an out-and-out rewrite. Redecorate your apartment all you like; just don’t go knocking out the walls. You still have gobs of space to play with: revamp the instrumentation, fiddle with the melody, shove the whole operation into a different genre altogether. You can even ruthlessly cut out the bits that don’t work for you—no one gave a golden goddamn about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” until John Cale hacked the original 80 verses down to a digestible five. But once you start revising those lyrics themselves, you’ve opened yourself to a world of music fan crankiness. It’s a creative decision that reeks of hubris, implying that you think you’re as good as or better than the giants who came before you: “Hey, Bruce! How’s it hanging? Say, hope ya don’t mind, but I did a little punch-up on ‘Born to Run’. That ‘suicide machines’ part was soooo depressing.” Edit the words if you must, but change them at your own peril.
Unless, of course, you have a good reason. Leonard Bernstein had one, and so, I’d argue, did Fanny, because if there’s anything as big and momentous as dismantling the Berlin Wall, it’s dismantling the patriarchy itself.
The fact that Fanny the band isn’t a household name is the sort of injustice that makes flames shoot out of my nostrils. They were one of the first all-female rock acts make an impact, with two top 40 singles and levels of band cohesiveness and raw talent that would make Steppenwolf wither in envy. No less than David Bowie thought they were the greatest thing on eight legs, and yet here we are in 2021 collectively not talking about them. It’s this lack recognition in the shadow of so many male counterparts, though, that makes their version of the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” so compelling. True, part of that’s because they rock the ever lovin’ pudding out of it, tearing into the song’s flesh like a felled gazelle. But it’s what they do with the words that raises the eyebrows. The original was a throwaway, cobbled together while the Beatles were filming a promotional video for a completely different song, which is why the lyrics make no sense whatsoever in that patented Lennonesque hookah-smoke-infused way. Fanny found the sense that the boys hadn’t bothered with, and made just enough alterations to turn a song about nothing into a song about being a woman in 20th century America. It’s telling that Fanny’s version of the lyrics don’t appear anywhere online—every single source copies and pastes them over from the Beatles version, studio crosstalk and all—because the changes on first listen seem cursory, not worthy of note, just as random and strange as the original. But those changes carry weight, and could only have come from a quartet of women in an industry where everyone around them, even the Beatles, are…well, a bunch of dudes.
There are three places where Fanny has taken a red pen to Lennon/McCartney’s quote-unquote “sacred" text. The most glaring is their new third verse, vague enough and close enough to the original that it seems to be there to pad the running time: “Hedgehog grubbing in the sand / Leap frog giving him a hand / Some kind of attitude is measured out inside / You think you’re going, but you haven’t got a ride.” Perfectly on-brand, but not very much contributing to the conversation. The other two alterations, however, are more like tweaks than new content, but they’re the sort of tiny dial adjustments that turn the song’s point of view on its ear. The latter of these affects just two words in the last verse. One of those, turning “wigwam” into “flim-flam,” simply trades in Beatles nonsense for Beatles nonsense minus the unfortunate racist “How, kemosabe!” connotations. The other lays in a wallop that most women would recognize in a heartbeat and most men would gloss right over: Instead of a “big man walking in the park,” we have a “big man lurking in the park.” That’s not a zero-sum edit—they’re both general no-particular-place-to-go things to do in a park, but when you trade in the neutral “walking” with the cocked revolver of “lurking”, you shift the idea of who this man is from big man to big threatening man. It’s a threat that women spend every day of their lives evaluating and that men are by and large oblivious to. The Beatles certainly never thought about it, so Fanny make a point of telling them, and they do it from within their own treehouse.
The most important change, though, is the very first one. At the end of the second verse, the band flips the script on that last line, nudging it from second to first person; what started as “You don’t know what it’s like to listen to your fears” becomes “I know just what it’s like to listen to my fears.” It takes a certain innate compassion to see that as a necessary upgrade, and it says a lot not only about the narrator, but about their relationship to the person they’re addressing. The original line was accusatory, like a drunk trying to start a bar fight, albeit a weirdly existential one. Fanny turns it into a statement of self, a declaration of strength and experience, and an attempt at connection. I’ve been there, they say. I understand, and I know you can do so much better. It’s not until you hear their take that you realize the only time the Beatles version drops in an “I/me” is on the “You can talk to me” chorus, which, coming after verses’ worth of sneering and browbeating, makes you wonder why anyone would want to do that. Fanny earns your vulnerability by first offering their own, telling you they know what you’re going through and only then inviting you to coffee and offering to listen to those fears alongside you.
When Fanny was first signed to a major label in 1969, the producer dismissed their lead singer in an effort to create a more Beatlesque guitar-guitar-bass-drums quartet. This meant dividing up vocal duties among three of the remaining members, a move that left a bigger impact crater than producer-dude could have predicted. Listen to that wall of voices on “Hey Bulldog,” belting in unison, ignoring harmonies they were more than capable of. It’s the sound of a united front that the Beatles lost somewhere around 1965, the sound of a phalanx of power like linked elbows at a Washington protest, with feet planted and heads held high. If these songs really are sacred texts, that ferocity is an argument that these texts can and should be remade in one’s own image. Bands like Fanny occupy only a small apartment in the vast male-owned city that is the rock and roll industry, but they’ve earned the right to start knocking walls down. Maybe this is a history we need to start rewriting. You know, just a few words here and there. Just enough to change everything.
Title: Hey Bulldog
Album: Fanny Hill