Mean Mr. Mustard - The Beatles

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"Mean Mr. Mustard" - The Beatles (1969)

Lennon commented on “Mean Mr. Mustard”:

“I read somewhere in the newspaper about this guy who hid five pound notes, not up his nose but somewhere else.”

Another version of its origins is that it was inspired by an old ‘bag lady’ that used to hang around the Knightsbridge end of Hyde Park, London, close to the army barracks. She had all her possessions in plastic bags and slept in the park.

Another version has Lennon remarking:

“That was me writing a piece of garbage.”

“Mean Mr. Mustard” is conventional, blues-influenced pop-rock with its melodic phrases spilling across bar-lines delineated by McCartney’s fuzz-toned bass. The opening chords and machine-like groove suggests the dark and indifferent side of a clockwork universe, in which human suffering bears little or no relevance.

The music has a grungy feel- low and guttural. The backing track is dominated by bass, drums and guitars.

Professor Thomas MacFarlane suggests that the rocking, back-and-forth rhythm of the track conjures up the vision of the motion of a primitive machine which is the musical back-ground for a disturbing yet ultimately amusing character sketch.

He writes:

“The narrator who tells us of Mr. Mustard’s exploits- such as sleeping in the park and shaving in the dark- seems rather sinister himself wince he audibly revels in the wanton activities he describes. In the second verse, Sister Pam makes her first appearance and is evidently the main character’s sole relation. She spends her days working hard and, whenever possible, tries to invoke her brother in respectable social interaction. Her efforts are in vain, however, since Mustard invariably makes an embarrassing scene with some obnoxious bit of behavior designed to outrage any onlookers.”

Beatle scholar Alan Pollack remarked:

“Amazingly, no matter how awkwardly John is caught up with here, compositionally on the run, so to speak, we find him making the effort, expending the bandwidth to work in odd phrase lengths, more mosaic tiling, and a metric modulation. The song is more a ‘discontinued fragment,’ than a ‘bonsai miniature,’ and I say that without intending any pejorative connotations. In context it makes an excellent fit of form-to-function.”

Lennon tells the story of a dirty old man that has become invisible to society. The larger insensate crowd has no use for him beyond his potential for side-show grotesquerie. His inherent malevolence is the logical conclusion of alienation and of loneliness run amok.

Through the track one discovers that isolation in a self-made world allows the intangible things in life to be destroyed. The feeling of despair that grasps man can be lifted if he breaks with tradition, for example- time and materialism- and seek freedom from the artificial world.

Ironically, the more we conform by embracing consumer society’s vision of the good life, the more isolated and alone we become. Mister Mustard is a selfish miser attempting to save paper by concealing it in bodily orifices so others won’t know he has it. Although an eccentric and stingy skinflint is no model of conspicuous consumption, the impulse to hoard and accumulate is closely related.

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