Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Wanna know what made the Beatles so goddamned untouchable in 1965? Huh? Wanna?
'Cos even the throwaway tunes, what they called the "work songs," the written-to-order knockoffs, had these amazing little bits and pieces that still even now sound perfectly artificed, brilliantly contrived, conjured out of gossamer by some musical god made flesh, daring, challenging, perfectly strange and strangely perfect.
Take this slick little honey of a tune: "You're Going to Lose That Girl." (Edit: Link streams the tune in a new window; read and listen!)
Lyrically, we're clearly in Young Lennon Country, pre-Yoko, a place where women are possessions to be fought over, won and lost, and all men potential rivals. In a way, it's a mirror piece to "She Loves You"; this time the news being delivered from one man to another is a warning not an affirmation. Lennon's rough voice, fattened by double-tracking, alternates with mocking echoes from the other two singers (Paul high, George low), sounding slightly menacing, aggrieved. He goes high into head voice on the word "lose," foreshadowing the Amazing Moment to come.
Harmonically, it's pretty interesting in the early stages. We're going E-G#-F#min-B7 in the verse (I-iii-ii-V7), with only one chord changing in the chorus: The G#min becomes a C#min, changing the progression to a more classic I-vi-ii-V7. It's that F# minor that interests us here, first because it's a substitute for the subdominant A (use A major instead of F# minor and the chorus becomes the simplest doo-wop progression, which the Beatles scrupulously eschewed until they parodied it in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun") -- but also because it will act as a pedal point for the utterly wonderful key change that begins the middle eight. That's the BeatleMoment in this tune, the little detail that rose these guys over any of their contemporaries and will be the reason people listen to them two hundred years from now.
I mentioned Lennon going high on the word "lose"; the second time he does this, it triggers the sparkling key change, pivoting on the F# minor to an ambiguous D major chord, which turns out, after a moment of utterly delicious tension, to be the dominant of the new key, G. I've raved about it before, and no doubt will continue to bore people with it until I shuffle off this Strawberry Field, but when you assemble your song and lyrics so that the most important word in the song -- in this case "lose" -- is also the pivot-point for a key change as unspeakably deft as this one... Well.
That, my friends, is songcraft.
But it goes on. Notice the vocal texture change in the middle eight: Instead of the derisive call-and-response of the main body of the song, we get block harmonies, gang singing. And what's the difference lyrically in the middle eight? Our hero has gone from warning his friend that if he's not careful his girl will leave him, to "I'll make a point/Of taking her away from you!" Now it becomes plain: The girl ain't just leaving; he's taking her. So why wouldn't he want, at this point, to be backed up by his gang singing along with him? The point at which his aggressive intentions are revealed, he recruits a solid group to do his talking.
And getting back to E! Oh, my god! Getting back to E! "The way you treat her, what else can I dooooo?" He visits a third key, C, for the sole purpose of introducing that F (C's subdominant) under "dooooo," which slides unctuously, viscously, like a grilled banana into a bucket of corn syrup, one half step back to the home key. Unnnnnnnggghhhhh....
Help! has been unfairly stigmatized as a transitional album. Well, OK, certainly transitional it is, but in so many ways it's a high-water mark as well: It's Lennon/McCartney at the height of their powers as the sort of commercial tunesmiths who could knock out a guaranteed pop hit pretty much without breaking a sweat. By this point in their careers, they had the unutterable luxury of being able to regard something as sparkly and shiny and streamlined and novel as the middle eight key-change in "You're Going to Lose That Girl" as a knockoff, a commodity, a deliverable, to use the au courant word. They would go on from here to their period of experimentation and the resulting gradual dissipation; never again would they be as effortless as this.
Historical Authenticity Dept.: Check out the terrible, horrible, no-good ski-boots George is wearing in this pic:
Do you think that perhaps your legs might be a tad sore after a day spent with them chopping relentlesly at your anklebone? Now: When did the sport of skiing really take off as something people other than International Playboys did in Gstaad? I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that those boots, completely lacking in calf support and thus affording absolutely no control over either pitch or yaw of the ski, kept the sport of skiing in the Stem-Christie Doldrums until the Lange company introduced the high-backed boot in the early Seventies, bringing on the era of Avalement, making possible the elegant and graceful bump-skiing we practice today. How do I know this? I learned to ski in boots exactly like the ones George is wearing in this pic, and I remember as clear as yesterday the terror I felt of the slightest bump or irregularity in the piste. After I got me a pair of high-backed Lange boots about 1974, the difference in my skiing was unimaginable -- I hopped over moguls like a little puff-coated Slinky. As world-changing in their way as the short surfboard or the jack-rabbit-ball, those Lange boots. When did people start Hot-Dog Skiing? 1974, yessir. All in the boots.