Tuesday, September 26, 2006

B7


All right. So I bit off quite the mouthful a couple days ago, promising to explore and possibly elucidate what made the Beatles' music so exciting, and what set them universes ahead of their contemporaries. Others have spent eons wallowing around in the Beatles' canon microscopically examining each individual twang and paradiddle, and at least three very good books have been written on the topic by classically trained musicians -- my favorite being Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, an impressively (some would say excessively) ambitious work that both examines the Beatles' output song-by-song and tries to explain their significance in contemporary events.

A single blog post probably isn't going to have quite that kind of range.

I began this little exercise by falling rather hard for a quite charming mid-Sixties song by the Swedish group The Mascots on the Nuggets II collection, "Words Enough to Tell You," (original version this time, not my po-faced GarageBand attempt at it -- pops). My impression was that it was fairly plainly attempting to conjure the BeatleMagic, but falling just short of its goal. The idea struck me that if I could identify how the song failed, I might be able to illustrate what, to my mind, made the Beatles so great.

Commenters on the earlier post had some interesting contributions. Steve and Kevin, in particular, reined me in a bit on the whole idea of Beatle-ishness, reminding me that the Beatle-aciousness of 1967 was a thing on an entirely different plane than that of, say, 1964. (The secret ingredient being, of course, the different kind of dope they were taking. The '64 Fabs were fueled on a speed-and-Scotch diet, not yet having discovered the gentling and horizon-expanding effects of the Kind Bud.)

In contrast to the opinions of most people I've talked to on the subject, I've always argued that the earlier Beatles' innovations, on a purely musical plane, were even more outrageous than their later ones. While no one will dispute that "Sergeant Pepper" had a gigantic effect on the musical forms of the time, ushering in the idea that rock music could be Art, I do argue that the stunningly revolutionary sophistication that the early Beatles brought to the previously simplistic vernacular of rock-and-roll managed to push a stagnant, gray music, stuck in the stultifying Tin Pan Alley conventions of the early Sixties, into a world of blazing, blinding color.

It's this quality of the Beatles that has always kept me coming back to 1964. If you weren't alive then, you can't begin to conceive how utterly, shockingly new their music was. I can imagine thousands of young men sitting around scratchy little record players spinning "I Want to Hold Your Hand," fingering their newly acquired guitars, their bravely lengthening hair beginning to touch their eyebrows, furiously taking notes and thinking to themselves "Hell, this is easy! Just play some R-n-B and wiggle your moptop during the hook!"

But it really wasn't that easy. And what made it hard -- what made the Beatles unique, in other words -- was the richness and sophistication that they infused into a form that everybody else thought was easy.

I've said before that the ultimate challenge to someone trying to arrange for two-guitars-bass-and-drums is to make it interesting. That's a pretty limited palette in anybody's book. Rock-and-roll in its purest, pre-British Invasion American form offers a relatively small number of things that you can do to make it interesting and still stay within the genre. Think of something like "Heartbreak Hotel"; the excitement that song generates is purely from Elvis' shockingly feral performance of it, and not from any musical surprises it affords. A first-year guitar student should be able to figure out the chords in under a minute -- they're exactly the same chords that appear in thousands upon thousands of other songs in hundreds of vernaculars. Even Buddy Holly, another genius, rarely left the strictures of the form.

What the Beatles realized early on -- before they won their recording deal, certainly -- was that you could raid other genres for ideas to make the two-guitars-bass-and-drums thing interesting. I put this discovery squarely into McCartney's lap; he was the Beatle whose appetite for schmaltz led them to explore the notion of copping ideas from other contemporary styles of music -- from Hollywood, from Broadway, from the Roseland -- to drop into their own arrangements. "Besame Mucho." "Till There Was You." "A Taste of Honey." All songs championed by Paul.

I'm not going to contend that this is unique in musical history -- or even among the early Beatles' contemporaries. But what I will credit the Beatles with is the notion that things borrowed from other genres -- unusual chord choices, unusual voicings, unintuitive harmony singing -- could be translated into a simple arrangement for two-guitars-bass-and-drums and made to rock. Really fuckin' hard. The early Beatles took simple music, imbued it with borrowed sophistication, and gave it glorious, revolutionary, world-shaking drive.

Let's get down to cases. Let's look quickly at the chords of the opening lines of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and the same part of "Words Enough to Tell You." (I know, the comparison is deeply unfair, but you'll see where I'm going. The songs are in different keys, but I'll transpose them to the same key for ease of comprehension.)











Note that last chord....


Now here's the corresponding opening lines of "Words Enough to Tell You":






Ah-HA!!!! Do you see it? Do you see it?

Both songs, at extremely important moments in their development, choose a B7 chord -- a chord that isn't in the home key. Its use momentarily throws the identity of each song's key into a state of uncertainty: Whoa! Where'd that chord come from? Where they hell are they going with this?

(You may think that you, the layperson, don't think this. I don't know any music theory! Where the hell does this overheated goober get off telling me what's in my head? But you do. Oh, yes you do. Remember "Going-forth-and-returning"? The introduction of that unexpected chord in both of these songs is exactly analogous to that moment when Our Hero meets a dragon, or falls into a well. This is emotionally affecting in exactly the same way -- it tickles the same nerve-ending -- as the introduction of conflict in narrative, when the path to a satisfactory ending, the Way Home, is suddenly blocked by an unexpected plot-twist. Just because we lack the vocabulary to describe it doesn't mean it's not happening.)

You don't think the Beatles knew what they were doing? Think that B7 was just a lucky guess? In a footnote, Ian MacDonald tells us:
Lennon remembered this as the chord that 'made' the song. When McCartney found it -- to judge from the the movement of the melody line, he was sitting on the left, voicing the chord-sequence in descending inversions -- Lennon shouted 'That's it! Do that again!' (Sheff and Golson, p. 117.)
(And oh, hey -- not to beat a dead horse or anything, but once again we have an example of the skilled songcrafter's trick of making the moment of uncertainty happen exactly on the key word in the lyric.)

That B7 chord is so powerful -- and the Beatles knew it was so powerful, such a godalmighty great hook -- that they wrung absolutely everything they could out of it. Paul's part jumps up a whole octave -- the quintessential wiggle-your-moptop moment. Listen to Ringo's drum fills on each of the five times that chord occurs -- he's just smacking the shit out of them. Other elements of the song -- the killer intro, recapitulated at the end of the two bridges ("I can't hide! I can't hide!"), the vocal octave upward leap on the chord-of-surprise, the alternating unison and harmony singing, George's double-stop country lead fills, the altered texture of the bridges, the syncopated, braking 3/8 ending, and above all, what MacDonald calls the "beatific energy with which the group belted it out" -- combine to create what I will insist to the end of my days is the most exciting two-and-a-half minutes in the history of rock and roll.

So wouldn't you steal it?

The Mascots' song, as we've said, uses this same trick of introducing a major chord based on the mediant of the home key, with a reasonably successful result. It introduces a similar sudden sense of tonal uncertainty, which was its desired effect. But what's lacking, I think, is the sense of brashness, of confidence that the breaking of a "rule" is done for the sheer joyful hell of it. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" uses the emotional uncertainty implied by the chord as a trigger for joy and excitement; "Words Enough to Tell You" uses it as a mere device to get from the verse to the bridge. The Mascots employ the "wrong" chord; the Beatles absolutely rub your face in it.

I'll freely admit that the comparison of the two songs is unfair. "Words Enough to Tell You" isn't meant to be "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; it's a rather twee little midtempo harmony-soaked love song, and not the product of young geniuses commanded to produce their first hit for the American market, as the Beatles were tasked with. And there are, no doubt, thousands of other early- and mid-Sixties songs that employ those same chords -- so much so that it has become a characteristic progression, a cliche you might trot out if you wanted to write a parody, or a commercial work-song, that evoked that time.

This was the Beatles' greatness: Their accidental discoveries, their "mistakes," their "That's it! Do that again!"s -- became clichés.


Stuff I Left Out But Didn't Want To
  • Allan Ginsberg, hearing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for the first time, leaped out of his chair and danced. He had never danced in public before.
  • Bob Dylan was absolutely floored by the song. He was later quoted. "They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous [major chord based on the mediant of the home key, you mean, Bob?], just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid."
  • The Fabs' German-language version of the song, "Komm, Gib Mir Diene Hand," recorded in Paris in January of 1964, rocked way fuckin' harder than the original.

16 comments:

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Yeah, that's exactly it. And the new Emerick book confirms it- there are at least three mentions of instrumental "mistakes" in overdubs that were accentuated and intentionally expanded on. That's what they loved the most. There are crummy edits, too, that could have been corrected in a matter of minutes that were seized upon and overdubbed on (i.e. McCartney's "Let Me Roll It" has a measure of 5 resulting from a clumsy edit).

B7!! That's what I _always_ think about when I think pre-'65 Beatles. It's there on "This Boy", on "I Call Your Name", on "Things We Said Today", on "Day Tripper" (as a reg'lar old V that takes off like a fuckin' DC10), on "I Should Have Known Better" (Wow), on "You Can't Do That", on "Hold Me Tight". And on just about all of these it we're not only talking mediant, we're talking B7.

My theory is that the chord held a special place in their hearts dating back to their musical infancy because it's the first "different" chord they would have experienced once mastering the good old I-IV in th' key of E. B7 would have always been the ultimate "turnaround" chord for them.

Grassy knoll, grassy knoll.

fgfdsg said...

I *always* expand on mistakes. They're exciting, and i'm sure tap into your real subconcious intentions when you're working on a piece.

Brilliant Essay Neddie. I'd always assumed my excitement was purely based on the octave leap in the melody at that point. It must have sunk in there subliminally, because my one chance at being in a band many years ago fell apart because I suggested reharmonising
a G to a B7 leading into a C. Fools! It sounded great *to me*.

I particularly love your writing on music and how capture the internal emotional processes we respond to. Here's an idea. Take 50 songs you love unabashedly, and write an essay on each. You'd have a damn interesting book that I'm sure *someone* would publish, and I know I'd buy.

I just realised the chords in the chorus of Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" is exactly the same progression as the chorus of "I Want To Hold Your Hand", just slower.

Kevin Wolf said...

Four piano lessons 35 years ago doesn't count as musical training, so I'm one of those who must feel the changes you're talking about. But I do feel them. I think you're right on, Neddie.

But: It's a matter of taste, I guess, that while I understand the impact, the newness of a tune like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the very earliest Beatles material is not my favorite stuff.

Granted, it only took another year (less?) for them to get there, but the tunes Bobby mentions are among my favorites. Stuff like "This Boy," where the singing just kills me, or "You Can't Do That," which rocks like a motherfucker.

Still, every time you write one of these posts, I'm pulling out the Beatles again and listening with even more appreciation than before.

I especially enjoyed your comments on their appropriation of (or, perhaps, absorption of) the songcraft tricks of the trade in other genres. Half-assed Beatles fan that I am, I possess only the first volume of Anthology, but between that and the BBC sessions, there's plenty of proof of this.

Excellent, Ned.

Employee of the Month said...

Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns.


Cheers Ned!

Steve said...

"So I bit off quite the mouthful a couple days ago,"

That was my very first thought when you said you were going to be doing this essay :-)

"you can't begin to conceive how utterly, shockingly new their music was"

And how hideously derivative so much music would seem for so long afterwards! Of course, part of that is my "imprinting" (in the Lorenzian sense) on the Beatles in my musically formative years.

Let's see, before the Beatles, what did we listen to in my household? I had older brothers and sisters, so all sorts of weird stuff: Del Shannon, Ricky Nelson, 4 Seasons, Bobby Darin, girl groups, etc. - all on 45's. LP's were for my parents, and luckily for me, they were heavily into calypso in the early 60's - I really loved calypso, and still do to this day.

And then, one fine day, the Beatles. I guess you had to be there.

"the sense of brashness, of confidence that the breaking of a "rule" is done for the sheer joyful hell of it"

I think this is a huge part of Beatlesqitude. The Beatles exuded an aura of total confidence. And when they did stuff for the hell of it, which was all the time, it was a joyful, expansive, jolly-good-natured helluvit - the joyful part was important. I should add that me Mum became quite a Beatles fan. She simply referred to them as "The Boys".

"This was the Beatles' greatness: Their accidental discoveries, their "mistakes," their "That's it! Do that again!"s -- became clichés."

Exactly. That's why they were great out of the box, and why they continued to be great right on through so many changes. As a biologist, I will add that making "mistakes" and holding on to what works is technically known as "evolution".

That said, the implementation of these things was new, too, and very important to the whole package. The engineering behind the Beatles was just amazing, given the technology of the day. From the early-60's on, the sound of Paul's bass was often quite, well... I don't really know quite how to describe that sound. Is there a word for it?

Many thanks, ol' Neddie, for bringing this subject up. Great essays, great comments, great fun. Given the world in which we live (or as Macca would say, "in which we live in"), it is tonic. Or is it median? :-)

All best,

- Steve

Ben said...

I've been enjoying the hell out of this series of posts, and hope it continues as long as it can without alienating those less enthralled than I am. I'm especially pleased, since it was semi-technical discussions of the Beatles that brought me to this blog in the first damn place.

I've spent ages trying to describe what makes the Beatles the Beatles, and I'm convinced that it's this: that they did something sophisticated and made it sound simple. But that begs the question: how? The answer lies, I think, in their knack for combining basic ingredients in new ways, yet making it work. There wouldn't be anything shocking about the B in "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (I'm not convinced it's a 7) were it not for two things: 1) the fact that they'd just gone vi-iii and now are going vi-III, and 2) that they break into their trademark open 4/5 harmony at that point. These two things are (or were) completely unconventional, yet they are made of elemental bits and pieces.

Similarly, in "Words Enough To Tell You," you've come up with a motif that is both elemental and surprising, i.e. III-ii. Unconventional, simple, and it works. (Beatles songs featuring this chord change are "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party," and "You're Going To Lose That Girl". There may be others, but I can't think of them right now. Notice they're both Lennon songs and they're both from the late amphetemines/early marijuana era.)

Neddie said...

Mistakes:

Yeah, the Fabs were always ones for rolling the dice and going with what came up, weren't they. I'm reminded of that oft-told story of the wine bottle sitting on the Leslie speaker and rattling in sympathy during the ending of "Long, Long, Long." But that reliance on chance -- reinforced by quite a few thinkers in the Sixties, like John Cage -- could lead to quite a bit of hubris. That whole "random" thing was what led them to the distastrous "Magical Mystery Tour" project -- a point that MacDonald really rakes them over the coals for. Lazy doper-think.

B7: The fact that the guitar is set up the way it is in standard tuning is *so* important; I'm convinced there's a whole Ph.D. thesis in Rock Licks and Standard Tuning. Once, while watching a ballgame, I had a smack-your-forehead moment. Runner on third, less than two outs, batter hits a sacrifice fly to right -- but not quite far enough. Runner goes when the ball hits the rightfielder's glove, and gets thrown out at the plate by a great relay from the second baseman. The insight? Ninety feet! What fuckin' genius declared ninety feet between bases -- exactly the distance that a ballplayer can run and make that an exciting play at the plate? Eighty-five feet, he's safe. Ninety-five feet, he's out by a mile. Genius.

I just realised the chords in the chorus of Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" is exactly the same progression as the chorus of "I Want To Hold Your Hand", just slower.

And I only just now realized that Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" -- first song on the first album -- begins with a square-wave, spiky piss-take of the beginning of "I Want to Hold Your Hand"! HAAAA! Those guys were funny!

From the early-60's on, the sound of Paul's bass was often quite, well... I don't really know quite how to describe that sound. Is there a word for it?

Thumpy. Paul fought constantly with the studio geezers to turn up the bass, but didn't start winning until "Paperback Writer." That's a whole drama right there, the engineers believing that too much bass would make a phonograph's's needle jump. Paul would bring in records by Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers, other American acts with heavy bass, and point out that they didn't make the needle jump. "Not in my studio, sir," was the general response.

Bobby -- does the Geoff Emerick book talk about that conflict?

the B in "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (I'm not convinced it's a 7)

Fascinating you should say this, Ben. I wasn't at all convinced it was a 7 either. The first book I consulted while checking my chords (nothing more embarrassing than being wrong there!) had it as a B minor -- which gave me quite a bit of heartburn, as the whole post would have had to be rewritten. Then I checked with the Complete Scores and it gave B7. Whew! I'm given to understand the Complete Scores is pretty error-riddled, so you may be right. That means I just have to change the title of the post.

I'll check the Scores< again tonight and see if anything's playing an A in there.

1) the fact that they'd just gone vi-iii and now are going vi-III,

Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-YEAH! Exactly! It's just so ballsy! And you can see how it might have come about as just a keyboard mistake, hitting the D# instead of the D natural of B minor.... "That's it! Do that again!"

Makes life worth living, this stuff.

cleek said...

great stuff.

makes me wish i had a guitar here at work - cause i can play the hell out of a B7.

strummmmmm

Steve said...

"Similarly, in "Words Enough To Tell You," you've come up with a motif that is both elemental and surprising, i.e. III-ii. Unconventional, simple, and it works."

Well, it doesn't work for me. It's completely bloodless, no crunch at all. As Neddie put it, a rather twee mid-tempo harmony-laden thingy - nice song, sure. I think we really need to go beyond the strictly musicological bits, as important as they are, in order to understand Beatlesquitude. The Beatles were a unique package...

Attitude. Amphetamines and cannabis, yes, and years of having beer bottles thrown at them in Hamburg if they didnt't put out.

And that's part of the wonder of it all - consider where they came from!

- Steve

fgfdsg said...

Steve wrote:

And when they did stuff for the hell of it, which was all the time, it was a joyful, expansive, jolly-good-natured helluvit - the joyful part was important.

This is purely what sets the Beatles far apart from their wannabes for me. Fountains Of Wayne can wear the suits and sing the harmonies, but the sense of detached irony they project ruins their music for me. They need to shake their heads in excitement now and then.

The Beatles were eager, excited and full of joy over what they were creating. Listen to them singing 'She Loves You' or 'Hand'. They're having an absolute blast. When they lose that joy and wonder, (circa 'The Beatles'), their music loses me.

Neddie said...

Wow. This is really getting into the weeds, but...

Ben, I looked up the whole arrangement of IWTHYH in the Complete Scores, and found that the B minor of "think you'll understand" happens only in the first verse. Thereafter John plays an unambiguous B7 in that spot, as well as the spot I pointed out in my post.

And most fascinatingly, both guitars go tacet on "hand" in the first verse. That's why it's hard to tell whether that chord is a B7 -- nobody's playing anything! This is the only spot in the whole song when they do this; in all other cases, John's playing a first-position B7.

Also, looking at the score, it's very, very clear that the guitar arrangement is amazingly detailed for a little two-minute dance tune. Every second is very, very, VERY carefully arranged.

What a band, what a band.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

I do argue that the stunningly revolutionary sophistication that the early Beatles brought to the previously simplistic vernacular of rock-and-roll managed to push a stagnant, gray music, stuck in the stultifying Tin Pan Alley conventions of the early Sixties, into a world of blazing, blinding color.

Very nice writing Ned. Very nice.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Yeh, Emerick gets into the conflict mostly in the context of square-offs with mastering engineers. They delivered the master tape of "Revolver" with a note on it that said "transfer flat", i.e. "keep your grubby mitts off the EQ". Many red faces ensued.

The mastering guys would actually tend to shelf off under 100 hz, fearing the fictional "needle jump".

Emerick also talks about "Paperback Writer" revealingly- he states that the stereo mix doesn't work at all, which resonates with me. That mix is just awful; the bass is so disembodied that it just doesn't glue into the mix at all.

The "stereo mixes", created for the U.S. market, were afterthoughts, toss-offs, until "Pepper".

spaghetti happens said...

For the record, "The Compleat Beatles" calls it a Bm.

roxtar said...

I'm no Devadip Mahvishnu Zappa, but I have an ear and a guitar. Bm sounds good. B7 sounds great.

Sixtiesjones said...

Came to this link after having fallen for the mascots softer/sweeter take on the beatles sound, but loved this article, and although the mascots will never have energy of the beatles they definitely captured the essence, and I'm loving finding new bands like them.