Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Grilled Banana

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.


Kevin Wolf said...

Aw, Neddie, sometimes you drive me crazy. I'm not a musician so I have almost no idea what the hell you're talking about. I have to go by my memory of the song (which, of course, I do know, as any thinking person would).

I'm a little afraid a technical take like this might dilute the fun for those still feeling their way around the Beatles. There's surely some novices - some listeners 5 and under.

Still, you make me want to pull this one out for a fresh listen as soon as I get home. (Sadly, it's not amongst the Beatles tracks on my iPod.)

Speaking of Help!'s reputation: I really like this period though my favorites all seem to be clustered on the US Beatles '65 LP.

akhtoo - Gesundheit!

XTCfan said...

Nice. Always enjoy (and learn something from) your musical dissertations, and this is no exception.

I will add that I do like the Latinate percussion the Boys play with on this song, and that John's intention to "take her out tonight and ... treat her fine" is expressed in the verse, though not as forcefully as in the bridge.

And Kevin, not to worry ... one the Beauty of the Beatles is that, as technical as anyone can get in their analysis of the Fabs' craft, they still sound good.

jusdvttt (what happens to me when I attempt to golf)

Neddie said...

Say, Kev (and everybody else): The song title in the text of my post is links to a stream of the song... The idea is you can listen to the tune while reading the commentary. I'm going to edit the post so that's clearer.

yebmdj, a town in Minnesota with a huge statue of Paul Bunyan's kid brother Larry, who was three inches tall, and his paisley ant Brutus.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

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.

You couldn't have picked a better example. I absolutely love that record. They might call it a work-song but I don't. It is a classic example of exactly what was so_great about them. Had anyone else released that as an "A Side" it would have been a hit, but on the same collection was "Help," "Ticket to Ride," (and on the UK version) "Yesterday!" Back in those days they were releasing pop masterpieces faster than Dick Cheney can make a hundred bucks. Well, maybe not that fast.

The segement from the movie is the four of them playing the song in the studio in cloud of cigaratte smoke, and for me it is a textbook defintion of the word "cool."

hezus That is one great record!

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Forgot to mention how this song is an example as to why I still count John as the best rock singer ever.

"jaishixu" said Yoko...

beyond passionate said...

As someone who's life course was changed by the Beatles (overstatement?- Imagine you're 13 years old, already a desperate seeker for the superordinary, bored with a radio filled with Four Seasons and Ray Stevens music- and here come the Beatles) this post was right on target for me. The journey they led our generation on- from a sunny-pop-tunes-optimistic world to social awareness to inner awareness- wow! The Beatles inspired me to take up the guitar & learn music theory, and then go on to be a music major in college. So the Jingoist's post was right up my alley. And as someone who will labor for YEARS to right one half-way decent song, it is always awe-inspiring to study Lennon/McCartney- even what they may have considered throw-away material. Think how many new careers could have been launched by someone else able to release just one of their many masterpieces as their own. (did that make sense to you?)

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Yes. Desperately exciting shit. My experience of this song is permanently colored by the footage of it in the film. Turtlenecks, corduroy and bitchin', bitchin' hair. Desperately exciting and modern and utterly commercial before that was completely putrid. 1965 is probably the closest thing we have to a 1979.

I wonder if this song was sort of the "Every Breath You Take" of '65, with its streamlining of the old I-vii-IV-V thing.

I mean, if you knew what the old I-vii-IV-V thing is.

I think you should do this with one of my toonies one of these days. I mean, I'm pretty huge in Japan. Think how fun that would be. For me.

tripvfcg- what you say when you're on acid and someone asks what you're doing.

Oh, and happy birthday, cocko.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ned,

Do a similar parse on "No Reply"? How bout it?

The Heretik said...

And what about "Hey, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."

fgfdsg said...

It's these sort of posts that you and your brother do that make me realise what a truly crap songwriter I am. LOL What the? Why the? Huh?

In dummy terms, for me, "Help!" is where i start going "ooooh, now these songs are *really* starting to get interesting", which lasts up until "Magical Mystery Tour".

Gavin M. said...

In dummy terms, for me, "Help!" is where i start going "ooooh, now these songs are *really* starting to get interesting", which lasts up until "Magical Mystery Tour".

That was the point at which George Martin started to take over the arrangements, adding instrumental parts in the interstices and breaks instead of composing mostly horizontally, as the band had been doing.

I really stop listening closely at around Sgt. Pepper. The band's mid-late style was pretty much a winking pastiche of WWII-era music-hall stuff, and people say it's brilliant and singular, but I just hear Noel Coward and Benny Hill all throughout the whole thing.

"When I'm 64" is the broadest sketch, but it really shows up everywhere. "Lady Madonna" is even an early-'60s dancehall number -- a sort of Kigston Sound tribute (although I'm not sure that anyone has ever formally noticed that it's a ska song).

Gavin M. said...

...Actually, come to think of it, the Beatles song with the most ska is 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.'

That's practically a Prince Buster song -- although, again, no one seems ever to have noticed this in print.

Devil's Rancher said...

When I was a young sprat, my newly-divorced parents got their wires crossed, and I got TWO copies of Help for my 6th birthday. This was the music that set me on the path to who I am. I can only imagine that otherwise, life would have been quite different. Thanks, guys.

This particular song is also a text book example of WHY the girls went nuts over the Beatles. The woman-as-possession side of the equation is tempered by the sensitive, kind side of the Beatles here-- he promises to treat her RIGHT and KIND. The Beatles approached women with a kind of vulnerability and sensitivity that hadn't been seen before in male-vocal pop music, and all the girls fell in love with them as a result.

Also, gotta love the bongos.

fgfdsg said...

I really stop listening closely at around Sgt. Pepper. The band's mid-late style was pretty much a winking pastiche of WWII-era music-hall stuff, and people say it's brilliant and singular, but I just hear Noel Coward and Benny Hill all throughout the whole thing.

Ah, the difference is for me I don't hear the music as pastiche. I think the songs themselves are sincere - McCartney was in the lucky position where he could explore all his musical influences and his mind was just going in hundreds of directions at once.

Even a 'children's' song like "Yellow Submarine" doesn't come across with smarmy self-satisfacation or a big fat wink to the audience. It sounds like the band figured if they're going to do a kid's song, they're going to do the best one they can. (Which is pretty much sums up why I love Andy Partridge too, actually).

It's why I love the Beatles in that period. Full of wide-eyed excitement at the possibilities of recording and the variety of music they had been and were still taking in. It's when the cynicism seems to take hold ('The Beatles') that they lose me.

Can you imagine a modern band doing a song like "Yellow Submarine" now? They'd pose in the video with bored "This is *so* beneath us" expressions.

XTCfan said...

To Simon and Gavin ... two words:
Abbey Road. 'nuff said, IMO.

To Ned: What was I thinking? Happy welcome-to-the-garden day. I'll give you your spanks when next we meet.

At which you might say derphs!

Ben said...

Wow - I've been looking for years for a formal discussion of Beatles chord changes - thank you internet, and thank you Neddie!

Your analysis is exactly on target, but you get a key chord slightly wrong. The progression during the verse is I-III-ii-V, with a G# Major. This, in fact, strengthens your analysis, in that it makes the F#minor even more interesting. Why? Well, where might one expect to go after I-III? Maybe VI or vi. Or maybe IV. And that's why the F# Minor is brilliant - it plays off our expectation of A (IV), of which it is the relative minor. Thus the Beatlesque trick of favoring ii over IV (which you rightly highlight as key to this song) is established right at the beginning of the verse. Anyways, I've thought about Beatles chord changes for most of my life, but until I read your post I didn't have the technical jargon to express my thoughts (I hope I'm using it right; it's about relationships and intervals, right?) So thanks for teaching me that as well! I look forward to going through your archives and learning more.

Neddie said...

Ben, interesting catch about the G# major. I originally thought it was G# major, but a very very ambiguously voiced one, such that the third that would determine major or minor was nearly inaudible. I'm apparently not the only one this has confused, because two books of sheet music (including the Complete Scores) disagreed. Tim Riley thought it was major, but I listened pretty intently and heard minor. Went with it, because it's the "correct" chord for the key.

Two books are indispensible if you want to seriously study Beatle songcraft: Tim Riley's Tell Me Why, and Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head. Both are song-by-song breakdowns & analyses of the Beatle Canon.

Riley's more technical; MacDonald's more interested in placing the Fabs in their historical context but is also not afraid to roll up his sleeves and talk chord changes.

Check 'em out, Gracehoper.

cppqpd, which is how you say "Oom-mow-mow-papa-oom-mow-m'-mow" in Welsh.