Notes On "No Reply" (NR)

Copyright 1989 Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved

The intense and complex emotionality of "No Reply" comes as much from its construction as it does from the screaming, double-tracked vocal. We'll do an end-to-end run-through but be forewarned to keep your eye on the third phrase of the verse in particular.


Overall Structure

The overall form is compact:

Verse - Verse - Break - Verse - Coda

There is only one break, which is itself followed by only one verse. The break is noteworthy in that it is equal in length to the verses; a full sixteen measures.

The form is curiously similar to that of Day Tripper but for different reasons. In DT, we saw a break so climactic that a repeat would have been anti-climactic. In NR, the break provides relief from the intensity and dramatic shape of the verses. The issue here is not so much that the break can't be repeated as much as it is that we couldn't handle more than three verses without feeling burnt out. Play out some variations in your head (e.g., verse-verse-break-verse-verse-break-verse) and you'll see what I mean.


Brief Technical Digression -- the ii6 chord

We've already seen a couple of functionally sub-dominant chords in the other songs we've looked at: IV, ii, and V-of-V. In NR we encounter a new variant, the "ii6/5" chord, which is nothing other than the ii7 chord in its first inversion. (For you guitar players we're talking about a d minor 7th chord with the f-natural in the bass.)

The ii6/5 chord is an especially cute sub-dominant because of its "added sixth" sonority; as though ii and IV were super-imposed on each other. Its usage here is all the more appropriate because our ears make an alliterative association between it and the C chord with an added sixth which is used heavily throughout; analogous to the way that people sometimes say that the blue flecks in your necktie "pick up" the color of your eyes.


The Opening

We start off, yet again, in the midst of the action; the boys seem to have liked doing that. Both the rhythmic pickup of the vocal part as well as the chord progression contribute to this effect. The first downbeat in the song is actually on the syllable "fore" in "This happened once before." The first chord of the piece is the ii-6/5 which moves quickly to V -> I.


The Dramatic Verse

From a formal perspective, we have a straightforward 4-by-4, 16 measure verse but the dramatic AABA shape created by the four phrases is worthy of note.

The A phrase is musically straightforward. We have a full cadence with a two-measure prolongation of the tonic:

		d	G	C	-

	C:	ii6	V	I(added sixth)
	  	  5

And of course, this expository A phrase is repeated immediately.

The contrasting B phrase ("I saw the light/I nearly died") is the focal point of dramatic tension for the entire song; it's no accident that this material is recycled in the coda. While the violent syncopations in this phrase are not to be ignored for their contribution to the tense effect, let's for now zero in on the harmony:

		a	e	F7	e	Note how the pitch "e"
						is sustained through the
	C:	vi	iii	IV7	iii	entire phrase!

In my personal experience of this phrase I definitely expect something other than a return to e minor for the last chord. The first pair of chords are fine; vi -> iii is a rather "logical" progression because it lies along the circle of fifths. Then the tension increases to a peak in the third chord where we move to to F with the tremendous dissonance of e sustained from the previous chord. I believe that we expect to go "forward" from this F chord, not slide impotently backwards to where we came from, and yet, this turn of events is surprisingly effective because it provides an uncanny foil to the lyrics. The words are self assertive and confrontational while the harmony vacillates. This contrast lends a degree of subtle complexity to feeling projected by the song; it's not clear if our hero is really ready for his moment of reckoning.

The repeat of the A phrase at the end of the verse nicely makes for a dramatic "arch" shape; further pulling back from the emotional peak of the previous phrase. Harmonically, the juxtaposition of this last phrase to the end of the B phrase provides us with an e-to-F chord progression which finally does move up to G. Focus your ears on the bass line in phrases three and four of the verse if you want to experience the vacillation and eventual movement more keenly. After the descent to E, the repeated vacillation between E and F before finally moving up to G reminds me of the "two-steps forward-one-step backward" physical sensation of pushing a heavy object up an incline. Here's the bass line of the third and fourth phrase run together (yes, this would be easier with music paper):

	A
	   					G
	    		F		F**
	    	E		E
							C

(** In the first verse of the song, if you listen very carefully, you might argue that the second F in the above bass line is actually a D. However, the other two verses definitely show F, and though you may throw me my own line about avoiding foolish consistency, I'm going to say that in this case, the D in the first verse was a sloppy "mistake". Actually, the D instead of the F also makes for a nice melodic bassline too but I still wish they were consistent in this case. This would certainly be an instance where an alternate take of the song might help settle the point.)


The Break

The break ("If I were you ..") sounds at first like it's going to stray much further away from home harmonically that it eventually does. This sort of harmonic wilting of resolve provides still more of a foil to the decisive lyrics. The following eight measure phrase is repeated:

	C	E	    A	    -	    	d	    F	    C	    -

C:	I	V-of-V-of-ii			ii	    IV	    I
			   V-of-ii

The E and A chords create a momentary intimation of modulation which is quickly dispelled. The E chord "might" be a V-of-vi, and the appearance of A Major instead of a minor is a further surprise. In the instant before we realize that it's only V-of-ii we think we "might" be actually switching keys to A! But alas, it's really turns out to be "only" V-of-ii and we're right back in the key of C.


The Coda

The verse is repeated once more following the break and then we're treated to a four-measure coda which is a variant on the B phrase of the verse:

		a	e	F7	C

	C:	vi	iii	IV	I9
					 6

The final chord is special; a sonorous, freely dissonant added sixth plus added ninth (notes A and D sounding on top of a C chord). It's interesting to note that while the ninth in the final chord is "free", it's not without reasonable motivation. If you look back at the first two chords in the phrase (a -> e), there is an inner voice that moves downward from C in the first chord to B in the second chord. The same thing happens in phrase B above when the F7 chord slides down to E. At any rate, in our final chord progression, the added-ninth comes into play when an inner voice moves from E (in the F7 chord) to D (on top of the C chord.) You think I'm pushing it ? I say *listen carefully* and savor the way they let that final chord ring out!

Regards,
Alan (awp@mirror.tmc.com)

---
"They tried to fob you off on this musical charlatan,
 but *I* gave him the test."					080189#8

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