The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles

July 20, 2017 | Author: preston_ward_4 | Category: The Beatles, Paul Mc Cartney, Pop Culture, Music Theory, Leisure
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The Songwriting Secrets Of

The Beatles Dominic Pedler



Information Page Acknowledgements Introduction 1. Tension, Resolution and the Power ofY 2. The Three-Chord Trick and the Blues 3. The Minor Pop Chords 4. 'Supercharging' a Song with Secondarv Dominants 5. 'Exotic birds' and the Great Aeolian Cadence Mvsterv 6. Relative and Parallel Minor Switches 7. 'Borrowing' ... and the Rise of Rock 8. The Modal Connection g. Descending Bass, Inversions and 'Aug' chords 10. Middle Eights and Mega Modulations 11. Diminished: Songwriting Sleight-of-Hand 12. Tritone Substitution and Other Mvsterv Chords 13. The 'A Hard Dav's Night' Chord - Rock's Holv Grail 14. Melodv - Intervals, Motifs and Phrasing 15. Harmonisation in Focus 16. 'I nicked it! ' Derivation, 'Plagiarism' and Pop 17. And in The End ... Lvrical and Tonal Movement Coda 'She Loves You' Anatomv of a Perfect Pop Song Appendices 1. A Beginner's Guide to Music Theory 2. Beatles Chords in Practice 3. All Introduction to Harmonisah·on 4 . All Introduction to Beatles Song Form 5. SCience, Surprise and the Tingle' Factor 6. A Summaru of Early Beatles Influences 7. Song Index Further Reading no

Introduction 'All music is rehash. There are only a few notes. Just variations on a theme'. John Lennon1 "What's your favourite Beatles album?' So goes the code of introduction that is now dictated when any two or three Fab Four fans are gathered together - cueing a predlctable ritual as John, Paul, George and Ringo go under the microscope for the zillionth time since the sixties. You know the routine. Endless chin-scratching analysis of the backwards recording techniques of Revolver, the psychedelic concept of Sgt. Pepper, the minimalist artwork of The WhiteA/bum and the seamless blending of the medley on Abbey Road. Not forgetting a trawl through the convoluted clues to the real identity of 'The Walrus', and an inventory of those 'Paul is Dead' references (now the subject of a dedicated tome),2 For no stone is left unturned in Beatles culture except, too often, the only thing that really matters. The music itself. We all know that the group changed society in far-reaching ways with everything from their h aircuts to their politics. But it's the ultimate irony that the one aspect of their global-dominating legacy that is taken for granted is, well, the melodies and chord changes that really changed the world. That's not to suggest that other elements, especially a volume of lyrics now challenging Shakespeare for posterity, don't matter. Far from it. But a look at them in their rightful musical context can surely transform our appreciation, while also going some way towards explaining why the songs have become so imprinted on our consciousness. For one of the highlights of The Beatles' songwriting was their ability to apply a certain musical technique to reinforce the lyrical imagery. It was an instinctive element of their art and one that is evident at all stages of their career. No need to be a muso to join Paul on his meanderings down 'The Long And Winding Road'; to sense the girl leading us up the garden path in 'Day Tripper'; or to watch the 'sun going down' on the disconsolate 'Fool On The Hill'. The lyrics set the scene but, courtesy of The Beatles' uncanny grasp of musical emphasis, we instinctively feel it. Even when the 'Threetles' resumed with 'Free As A Bird' in 1995, the magic hadn't deserted them. With our eyes closed we can still see the creature taking flight at certain points in the song as the mood lifts.3 In all these cases, and many others we'll be exploring, there is a very specific reason for the effect we enjoy. For while, ultimately, the full beauty of music is down to an intangible element that can never quite be captured, there is nevertheless a way in which we can discover why a song 'works'. To get to the heart of the songwriting phenomenon, we must take a step back from The Beatles as cultural icons and the groundbreaking instrumentation and electronic wizardry that undeniably also played a part. For the essence of The Beatles' genius is to be found in their simply sublime harmony and melody, and the ability of a single chord-change or deft note to create pop history. For all their disdain for music theory, The Beatles knew this implicitly. At the simplest level, take John Lennon's memories of writing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' with Paul McCartney:

'I remember when we got the chord that “made" the song. We were in Jane Asher's house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, “Oh you-u-u ... got that something ... " And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say "That's it. That's it!" I said, "Do that again! "'4 Why musically did it work so effectively (after all, the 11 million buyers of this testament to Beatlemania certainly seemed to like it)? And why, for that matter, has there been so much debate among experts as to what the chord actually is? What we can affectionately call John's 'That's it!' chord is just one of the many musical riddles, myths and mysteries that, down the years, have passed into the burgeoning catalogue of Beatles folklore. We e~"Plore this particular one in Chapter 4 but, as a taster for what is to come, here are another ten musical 'gauntlets' thrown down over the years which we'll be attempting to pick up: 1) Why does Paul say the opening chord in the bridge of 'From Me To You' transformed The Beatles' songwriting by going to a 'surprising place', as he demonstrates on the Anthology video? 2) What pioneering songwriting principle did John see in a particular Del Shannon song that inspired him to make 'I'll Be Back~my variation on the chords'? 3) What was the mysterious 'Gretty chord' that Paul claims he used in 'Michelle' but which prompted a website to devise a challenging riddle for Beatles fans? 4) Does 'Because' really consist of the chords to Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata played backwards, as John and Yoko's comments have led us to believe? 5) Why does McCartney hit the nail on the head when he says 'to go to the B flat was quite good' while reminiscing about his 'sophisticated little tune', 'Things We Said Today? 6) Just what is the construction of that opening chord in 'A Hard Day's Night', described as 'one of the great unsolved mysteries in the history of popular music' by the edltor of Guitarist magazine? We add one more to the dozens of theories already on offer in published Beatles literature. 7) The Beatles' rendition of 'Besame Mucha' may have failed the Decca audition in 1962, but how did its 'big moment musically', as Paul describes it, find its way into some of the greatest Beatles songs? 8) 'You Never Give Me Your Money' is said to kick-off the seamless 'side 2 medley' on Abbey Road. But why, subconsciously, do we feel the medley begin one track earlier? 9) Why was McCartney so 'fascinated' by a very specific chord change in a Joan Bae ... song that, as he admits, he 'nicked it' for 'I'll Get You'? 10) And, most legendary of all, just what was the 'Aeolian cadence' in 'Not A Second Time' which, according to the classical critic of The Times in 1963, connected The Beatles directly to Gustav Mahler? This last puzzle famously connected The Beatles themselves - not to mention a string of interviewers, writers and even academics over four decades - and we duly embark on a search for that particular Holy Grail in Chapter 5. These puzzles are just the tip of the iceberg and merely seek to make the most of the tantalisingly few musical quotes volunteered by the band themselves over the years. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there is a goldmine of musical nuggets lurking in every corner of the catalogue, just waiting to be unearthed and appreciated. This book attempts to do just that by relating some of the most memorable highlights to the musical principles that John, Paul, George and Ringo mastered so effortlessly in their global domination of pop. Spanning the spectrum of musical complexity from the humble Three-Chord Trick to the most intricate of multi-key Beatles masterpieces, we construct a framework that introduces each new scale and chord one-byone, identifying its appearance and explaining its function while also touching on its origins and legacy within pop music. With musical exracts from the entire Beatles catalogue at our disposal, we deconstruct those winning cycles, sequences, intros, outros, and middle eights, by delving into extensions, moving lines, slick key-changes and a whole host of colourful processes - 'tricks', even - that hide behind the veil of a pop song. In A Brief History Of Time, Professor Stephen Hawking relates his fears that for every mathematical equation he included in his book, sales would halve. This author feels a similar apprehension, for there is indeed theory along the way, including the fundamental principles of tonality, root movement, harmonisation, substitution and

voice-leading. But there really is no other way. Basic theory and the willingness to see even the most complicated chord sequences as variations on very specific musical formulae is the only route to understanding not just the structure of Beatles songs - but also the effect. In an early posting on, the newsgroup's pioneer, 'Saki', captured the analytical dilemma for the non-musicologically inclined. 'If there's any part of The Beatles' output we're likely to be competent to describe, it's the lyrics ... But music requires a road-map if we are to understand what's happening.'5 Ultimately, this book is intended as just such a companion guide to the rocky terrain of pop music, with appreciation the main goal and any tips that future songwriters might glean just a bonus. Accordingly, very little prior musical knowledge has been assumed on the part of the reader (the opening chapter dwells almost exclusively on a single chord, before moving on to the Three-Chord Trick in Chapter 2). Those readers who are not familiar with the basic concepts of chords and scales should refer to Appendix 1, which provides important background to the basic major and minor scales and the construction of their respective families of chords. An understanding of these fundamental elements of music is essential to everything that follows. Appendix 3 gives a simple introduction to harmonisation (the way in which melodies relate to an underlying chord progression), a subject vital to appreciating these song-writing elements in context. We will not be taking a strict classical approach to Beatles music, and while brief references are made to certain high-brow terms and their origins, this is only to enhance our appreciation of a device as it appears within the song itself. This book is written by a practising rock guitarist - for guitarists, musicians, and fans of pop music - and acknowledges the fact that many traditional musical concepts are ill-equipped to capture The Beatles' essentially guitar-based compositional approach. In this sense, no apology is made for reworking and twisting certain conventional terminology, in most cases with the intention of better reflecting the contemporary thinking of the modern rock musician. And if the earlier term 'formula' sounds like anathema to The Beatles, suggesting sterile, contrived, mechanistic devices to which inferior songwriters resort as a substitute for inspiration, then just check out Paul McCartney's own memories of writing 'I'm Happy Just To Dance With You' for A Hard Day's Night: ' ... It was a bit of a formula song. We knew that if you went from E to G# minor, you couId always make a song with those chords, that change pretty much always excited you. This was one of those. Certainly "Do You Want To Know A Secret" was. The nice thing about it was to actually pull off a song on a slim little premise like that .. .'2 At a stroke McCartney succeeds in torpedoing another myth. For the fact that The Beatles famously couldn't read music misses the point. They clearly knew enough about the rudiments of music: the power of root movement and voice-leading within chord changes, to incorporate premeditated ideas into their songs - not to mention repeating the process by transporting them, 'lock, stock and barrel', to another song. In disguise, of course, but then that is one of the hallmarks of the canny songwriter. And we'll be discussing the versatility of this particular McCartney 'formula', which can be spotted equally in the very earliest Beatles excursions, like 'You'll Be Mine', right through to 'Real Love'. Of course, it's not just Beatles songs that can be understood as a blend of formulaic devices - they form the very language of pop. Many of the same musical principles recur across generations, proving them to be transportable tools for songwriters of all eras. In this sense, The Beatles did not just inherit a legacy of ThreeChord Tricks from fifties' rock'n'roll as is so often assumed. Far from it. Certainly, they pioneered many groundbreaking principles - like the ambitious 'borrowing' of chords that led so directly to the sound of rock. But the idea that the group somehow 'came out of nowhere', with an entirely new, Ilntried-and-untested arsenal of musical devices is another myth - and one that, paradoxically, doesn't do justice to their creativity. The Beatles developed a wide range of ideas from immedlate heroes such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, and other fifties giants, not forgetting the great songsmiths of Tin Pan Alley - right back, in fact, to the Delta blues masters. This isn't just speculation or biographical filler - courtesy of Anthology 1, Live At The BBC and the famous Hamburg 'Star-Club' bootleg, references to which appear throughout, we have the proof. Remember Lennon's comment: 'variations on a theme'. But what variations.

So while The Beatles form the focus, brief references to songs from all eras of the 20th Century - indeed from Cole Porter to Oasis - will appear at regular intervals to demonstrate the versatility of the principles at work, and how the traditions of songwriting have been passed down through the generations. Similarly, the supposed differences between Lennon and McCartney are e:.:plored - usually to question accepted wisdom and illustrate each writer's mastery of a strikingly similar repertoire of songwriting devices. As The Beatles' legacy is continually reappraised it has become fashionable for critics and fans alike to draw an imaginary dividing line between 'early' and 'late' Beatles periods. So much so that, with today's revisionists nailing their colours to the mast of the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper period, we'd be forgiven for forgetting that the songwriting revolution of the early sixties ever happened. But were the songs that originally fuelled Beatlemania really so naiVe compared with what came later? Of course, The Beatles matured as songwriters in a myriad of respects, as would naturally be e:.:pected from any artist over the course of a decade of development. But a preoccupation with the group's pioneering recording practices threatens to obscure the extensive array of musical principles evident in their writing as early as the debut album, Please Please Me. Similarly, there is the trap of assuming that innocent pop songs, lyrically long on youthful exuberance, must necessarily be short on musical substance. And vice versa, that hip themes of counterculture, rebellion, philosophy and cynicism automatically make for 'superior' music. Aesthetic judgements aside, it can certainly be argued (as eminent music experts already have) that many latter-day Beatles 'classics' actually represent a musical retrenchment from the dozens of early gems which, in the absence of post-modern effects, h ad to rely exclusively on inspired novelty in harmony and melody to make their statement. The fact that every chapter in this book (without fail) draws repeatedly on their early legacy (indeed, often from the debut album) either to showcase a fully formed musical principle or to suggest an idea 'in development', is testimony that the critical balance needs redressing. Finally, readers may well not accept the quasi-scientific premise that there is a physiological basis underlying the power of many of the musical principles we'll be e:\:ploring. But surely no one would deny that great pop and rock music is characterised by musical highlights of varying subtlety that unashamedly fuel the emotions. We can all identify with the listener who, finger poised on the rewind button of the CD player, swoons: 'Just listen to this bit ... that bit ... that bit there!' It's a scene that's been re-enacted in some form or other since pop began - and probably most often with a Beatles song as the subject. This book is dedicated to you. Admittedly it was John Lennon himself who once remarked impatiently, 'listen, writing about music is like talking about fucking. Who wants to talk about it?’ But then his very next words are never mentioned. 'You know, maybe some people do want to talk about it .. .'7 ________________________________________________________________________________ 1

The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon And Yoko Dno, conducted by David Scheff. Edited by G. Barry Golson. Playboy Press, New York. September 1980, p. 78 . 2

R. Gary Patterson, The Great Beatie Death Clues, Robson Books, London. 1996.


Listen to these moments in the verses at the following CD timings: OA8, 1.15,2.09, 2.35; and especially as Harrison starts his guitar solo at 2.54. 4

The Playboy Interviews, p. l24.


'Saki Revie\1IS The Book Reviews',



Barry Miles, Many }'ears From Now, p. 163. The Playboy Interviews, p. 79.

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