In honor of John Lennon's memory on the tenth anniversary of his tragic, untimely death, I'd like to explore three of his greatest songs as a group because they so well characterize a songwriting sub-genre which is one of John's unique innovations and which remains a special part of his legacy.
Among the several new musical directions explored by The Beatles from mid-career onward, none was more astonishing at the time, nor is still so compelling today, as their emerging preoccupation with the existential joy, wonder, and sorrowful angst of self-discovery, childhood memory, and post-adolescent adjustment to the realities of the human condition. Paul and George also worked with these themes, but I would argue that this is an area in which John was both the most daringly original and successful of the three.
My own admittedly clumsy one-sentence characterization in the previous paragraph aside, the texts of John's songs on these heavy themes are most beautiful in their intruiging, ineffibly elliptical poetry, and musically, they are written and arranged in a style unimaginably far removed from the guitars-and-drums young-love songs of just a few years earlier. Granted, they're not everyone's favorites, but there is no escaping their great originality.
There are clearly more than just three songs that fall into this category, but the ones I've chosen for this article title are perhaps the most ambitiously successful and perenially popular of the bunch. And though there is some thematic and musical overlap among them, each of these three illuminate different facets of John's achievement. Eventually, I want to treat each of the songs in turn to a detailed, individualized analysis. For now, I'd like to start with an examination of some global aspects of the Beatles' mid-career growth as a group, the better to place in perspective John's personal contribution. Later on, we'll come back to compare these specific songs with each other.
The year which runs from November 1966 to the same time in 1967 is a particularly special nodal point in the musical development of The Beatles. It is a period which begins with the first studio take of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (SFF) on 11/24/66, ends on 11/24/67 with the UK release of the "Hello, Goodbye/I Am The Walrus" (IATW) single, and is roughly bisected by the release on 6/1/67 of the "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album which concludes with "A Day In The Life" (ADITL).
A number of themes and techniques which appear with gathering momentum on the "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" albums (as well as on the several singles of that era) can be seen to converge and blossom fully forth during this musical season of '66/'67. In hindsight, one notes the social commentary of songs like "Nowhere Man", "Paperback Writer", "Taxman", and "Eleanor Rigby"; and the re-learning of how to cope with this world after seeing drug-induced visions of other universes in "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows."
The extreme sharpness of this convergence can be seen in the topical agenda of the "Sgt Pepper" tracklist in which there is a relative dearth of love songs and a conversely large number of tracks which deal with the social and experiential. Yet at the same time, this hot-house intensity turns out to be one which could not be sustained for long or even successfully developed much further. On the other side of this nodal point, one finds both an over-ripening temporary decline characterized by the critical flop (relatively speaking) of "Magical Mystery Tour" and an almost neatly symmetrical divergence into still new directions.
For the most part, the increasing number of straight-out rock songs, love ballads, and nostalgic evocations of earlier pop styles on the last several Beatles albums would appear as a retreat from the heady experimentation of "Sgt Pepper" era; John, at a later date would actually look back on it with some disdain and regret. Nonetheless, several elements from '66/'67 actually can actually be seen to survive into '68 - '70, albeit with some transformation. In particular, John's social/experiential interests are seen to mature into a genuine concern about the state of the world order; a concern at first suffused with sometimes bitter sarcasm, and yet one which would persist with increasing fervor and clarity of vision in his solo work after the group disbanded.
In addition to the extremely serious subtext of the lyrics, our three songs here also manifest a compositional complexity and a borrowing from several non-pop/rock musical styles including both classical and avant garde. The curious thing is that the history of Western music is replete with such crossovers between so-called popular and more seriously "artsy" genres, though over the long run, the crossover has more typically been in the opposite direction.
Going all the way back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was customary, even expected for a composer to weave or embed a popular folk tune into one or more parts of a choral Mass. Similarly, much of the thematic and motivic esssence of 18th century Classical and 19th century Romantic music has demonstrable roots in European folk and popular music; in fact, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you even find a movement of "Nationalistic" composers such as Dvorak, Grieg, and Bartok on the one hand doing this self-conciously in order to give world-class exposure to their respective treasured ethnic heritages, and "Futuristic" composers such as Mahler and Ives (how strange to see those two in the same bed) conjuring up the vulgarity of a music hall ambience for special shock effect in the manner of a Duchamp "readymade."
In the area of dance music, there are even more concrete examples of this phenomenon. The most obvious ones here might be the Minuet of the Baroque dance suite and classical symphony, or the Grande Valse of the 19th century, both of which were direct evolutions of what had been, just one generation earlier, party music by which to boogie. The crucial point here though (and one which will link us back up with the Beatles) is that even at the time that these earlier crossovers took place, the change in the perception of these forms or styles by their audiences was immediately transformed; i.e., nobody in Bach's lifetime would have gotten up to dance during the last movement of the Brandenburg First Concerto, nor in Chopin's time to swirl around the salon in time to the Minute Waltz.
The interesting thing about these classical-cum-serious dance forms is that at least some obvious phatic essence of the time, place, and vitality of the dance rhythm itself still exists in the music, no matter how rarified the serious transposition by the composer. To stay with our two examples, you can imagine the powdered wigs and brocaded jackets when you hear those Bach minuets, or the flowing ball gowns and the heavily crystalled chandeliers upon listening to Chopin, but even so, there is something so compellingly deeper than that in the substance of the music that to get up and dance would seem somehow a trivialization of the music.
Viewed in this light, it almost seems like berating the obvious to point out how our three Beatles songs under consideration here, in spite of their (strictly speaking) quite danceable rhythm tracks, don't feel quite right to be danced to either. Rather, they seem to be more appropriately intended to be *listened* to; carefully, thoughtfully, repeatedly.
What makes the phenomenon of the Beatles' so unique in spite of the historical parallel is that in the past, a crossover composer from the classical side would likely be doing so in full pre-meditation to prove a point, make history, or align himself with a larger movement. With the Beatles, we are dealing instead with some lucky fellows who had both the talent and all manner of wherewithal to just go off and do there own thing (man) unencumbered by up-front grandiose notions of where they were headed. Their overall development can be viewed as a scenario in which successive rounds of ecclectic stylistic elements and techniques were to be superimposed on top of a relatively unvarying rock substrate; the ultimate effect being not so much a crossing over from pop to "serious", as blurring of the distinction between the two.
To the extent that all **three of the primary songwriting Beatles wrote some songs in the social/experiential mode, it is especially interesting to contrast John's personal approach and outlook with that of the others. What I can predict will emerge, hopefully without arbitrary "bashing" of the other two, is John's especial strength in this area.
(**A parenthetical footnote here -- although Ringo's handful of songs deserves some mention in an absolutely complete treatment of the works of The Beatles, with no slight intended at the lad, I think we can safely conclude that Ringo qua composer did not participate directly in the heady self-exploration which preoccupied the other three, and as a result, his output does not figure here.)
By now, we've all become so used to thinking of the Boys as separate artists with individual styles. Even at the time it was happening, we knew this from the White album onward, and with greater hindsight, we now even trace it easily back to the earliest of days and albums. It almost requires some conscious effort to step back from the details in order to recognize the obvious yet uncanny parallels among the three of them in terms of macro-trends, themes, and techniques. Ironically though, even this exercise only serves in the end to highlight their differences.
On the verbal side, Paul's more serious, non-love songs seem to tend toward the journalistic, contemplative portraits of "Eleanor Rigby" and "The Fool On The Hill." He speaks in the subjective tone of introspection with relative infrequency, and when he does so, he's typically optimistic about the future, as in such examples as "Fixing A Hole", "Getting Better", and "Hey Jude"; significantly, in the latter two songs, improvement is clearly attributed to the presence of a love object.
George has a different but just as clear lyric pattern, tending to speak in the first person either exhortingly as in "Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light" or complainingly as in "It's All Too Much" and "Only A Northern Song." For George, improvement of some kind is possible if *you* are willing or capable of some sort of spiritual awakening.
John, true to form going as far back as "Help!" and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" takes the significant emotional and artistic risk of speaking most consistently in the first person with an open willingness to expose his vulnerability to pain and confusion. Our three songs here are notable in their total lack of love interest, advice, or explicit editorial point of view.
On the musical side, Paul is probably the leader in the area of bringing guest instrumental soloists into the Beatles' sessions whether it's the string ensembles in "Yesterday", "Eleanor Rigby", and "She's Leaving Home", or the French horn in "For No One", or the Bach trumpet in "Penny Lane" just to mention a few examples among many. Paul's other main avenue of compositional experimentation is in the masquerade-like stylized evocation and spoof of exotic and antique musical idioms.
George's most obviously significant and reasonably successful experiment is in the integration into the pop/rock idiom of classical Indian instrumentation, melodic style and phrasing. Note however that some will find fault in the extent to which this integration is a straightforward incorporation the foreign musical elements not fully digested. "Blue Jay Way" for example remains a curiosity in the way the Indian-like drone harmony and arabesque melodic motives are retained even in the absence of specifically Indian instrumentation or "transcendental" subject in the lyrics.
John's musically experimental legacy is primarily in the MacLuhan-esque exploitation for its own sake of the indigenous quirks of the recording medium. Paul and George too were involved in all manner of tinkering in the studio with flanging, vari-speed, tape loops and whatnot, but I believe John is the one who made the really big gestures in this department. Our three songs, in fact, may be among the best examples of this though the roots of it go back as far as "Yellow Submarine" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." And of course, it is John, after all, who in spite of all later retreat to good old rock 'n' roll would persist with offerings like "Revolution 9" and "What's The New Mary Jane."
As a relatively intuitive composer, John also made consistently effective use throughout his career of uneven phrase lengths, cross-cut switches between different meters, and unusual harmonic twists; the latter especially ironic in light of his conspicuous harmonic frugality in the early days. Paul is also consistently imaginitive in the novel use of modal harmony and unusual modulations (take a look, for example at as early as song as "Things We Said Today"), but I don't think you find anything in Paul's work that flirts with tonal ambiguity in the extreme way that something like "I Am The Walrus" does.
We'll find that in almost every measurable category, SFF and IATW are closer cousins to each other than ADITL is to either of them, but I still think they all make a nicely complementary threesome.
On the lyrical level, all three are certainly examples par-excellence of what I have dubbed the social/experiential genre. ADITL leans slightly more in the direction of social *comment*, while the other two (especially IATW) are much more inscrutable and Zen-like. There's much more that can be said here, but it's getting high time that we finally faced the music itself.
All three are songs intended to be listened to in recording rather than in live performance. You could make concert adaptations of each of them if you cared to, but something of their essence would get lost in the translation. And yet, paradoxically, the fact that there is a Beatles-esque rhythm track of the familiar drums, bass, guitar, and/or piano at the root of all three songs is not be under-emphasized; nor should we ignore the fact these songs all have clear, even traditional, song forms at their backbones. As I pointed out in an earlier article on "She Said She Said", it is only in John's later experiments such as "Revolution #9" that these formalistic values are abandoned, and for the most part, this retention here of the classic form in the midst of an otherwise extremely experimental milieu is of significance. The paradox can be vividly savored by listening to the commonly available outtakes of each of these three songs which prove just how much of the essence of the finished product does and does not survive the elimination of all the special effects.
But getting back to the recording techniques, each one of these songs in some obvious way or another does things with sound that you simply cannot do at all (or easily so, at any rate) in real time without recourse to extensive editing and other post-processing of pre-recorded sources. In SFF, there is the joining of two takes differing in mood and ensemble, each of which had already been subjected to heavy post- processing to begin with, plus the reverse fade which includes a very strange doppler-like sound effect. ADITL commences with a cross-fade from the preceding "Sgt Pepper" reprise track, and features a seemingly very large orchestra which appears intermittently out of nowhere. A couple of additional details include the vestigial echos of Mal Evans' counting from 1 to 24, the alarm clock, and the orchestration and extended fade of the final chord. IATW would appear to be the most heavily layered of the three, containing signficant, complex parts for orchestra, chorus, radio program, and other sound effects all on top of a basic rhythm track and vocal which themselves have been heavily flanged.
The employment of the orchestra is not only a common denominator of the three songs, but in each instance, the exact role of this auxiliary ensemble in the plot and arrangement of the song is quite far removed from the lush, wallpaper of sound you might find on the backing tracks elsewhere; e.g., the Phil Spector scores which appear on the "Let It Be" album. In SFF, the orchestra appears suddenly in the second half of the song in a heavy yet exceedingly jumpy pseudo-classical texture which works at cross-currents with the more flowing beat established in the take which comprises the first half of the finished song. In ADITL, it is used quite sparingly to great effect at the end of the two verse sections in a sweeping crescendo up a scale of indeterminate pitches. Very cleverly, it is also used to help effect the transition from the end of the bridge back to the return of the verse, and this additional appearance keeps the use of it in those crescendi from sounding too contrived and isolated. In IATW, the orchestra (and choral) part is a complex overlay on the basic rhythm track in which exaggerated gestures are employed to almost comically highlight or underscore various details in imagery of the words and music.
On a more subtle level, each of these three songs contains examples of harmony or phrasing that is adventurous to an extreme not often seen in the music of The Beatles, in spite of their career-long penchant for novel chord choices. Very briefly for now, SFF makes repeated use of both uneven phrase lengths, a brief switch into ternary meter, and chord progressions sufficiently unusual to make the tonality of the song periodically ambiguous; all these devices provide an evocative backdrop for the message of the words. ADITL, though much more straightforward, still presents an ambiguous alternation between the related keys of G Major and both the Major and minor modes of e; i.e., the verses are in G, but both the bridge and the ending of the song are in E. Even in the verses, the very first line of the song ("I read the news today, oh boy") starts off in neutral-to-optimistic G Major but quickly wilts away to the more wistful e minor; again, a subtle underscoring of the words. IATW is the least tonally stable of the three. Most of the song is ostensibly in the key of A Major, but the introduction starts off on B, and there is so much step-wise movement in most of the chord progressions that a clear sense of key is never really well established. The ending, with its infinitely step-wise descending chord progression and a top voice which is step-wise *ascending* has always conjured up in my mind visions of an limitlessly expanding universe, or perhaps, "consciousness" is more appropriate.
Finally(!) I'll admit that I've always had a "thing" for these three songs; beyond a point, even I won't try to hide it behind a smokescreen of bourgeois musicological cliches; well, not entirely.
I can still remember where and when I heard each of them for the first time; SFF, driving my parents car to school during my first semester of college; ADITL at a reverential gathering of special friends one relaxed Friday evening after final exams for a first listen to the "Sgt Pepper" album; and IATW, the following fall semester, again on the way to school, this time for a harmony class after which I tried to convey to the teacher my muckle-mouthed excitement over this new music. These old-fart reminiscences in their particulars aside, the point is that these songs were equal parts catalyst and accompaniment for deep cultural and societal changes when they first appeared; the fact that this was coincident with a rite-of-passage-like time in my personal life increased their resonance for me by what seemed a thousand-fold.
Ultimately, what's most amazing is that this music continues to fascinate me (maybe "us" ?) on levels far beyond those of mere nostalgia for Youth. Not everything from that period which turned me on at the time has fared so well, you know; somethings retain only nostalgic interest now, and others even come back to embarass me into acknowledging the sophomoric and fickle nature of my passion at that tender age. In the meanwhile, in spite of whatever supposed wisdom and maturity I may have earned over the intervening more-than-twenty years, John's three songs continue to teach, encourage, and challenge me.
Perhaps what I'm trying to say in tribute to John about the scope and power of not just these three songs but about his artistic legacy as a whole is most succinctly put by the following quote from a most unlikely source (Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited", p. 79):
The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth ... come and go with us through life; again and again in riper years we experience, under a new stimulus, what we thought had been finally left behind, the authentic impulse to action, the renewal of power and its concentration on a new object; again and again a new truth is revealed to us in whose light all our previous knowledge must be rearranged. These things are a part of life itself.
Alan (email@example.com *OR* uunet!huxley!awp)
"Pools of sorrow, waves of joy Are drifting through my opened mind 120890#23
Possessing and caressing me." ---
Click here to return.
Click here to return to AWP's index.