Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Reason to Go On Living: That Chord

(#2 in a series -- crossposted at NewCritics)

Recently, a dear friend lent me a guitar he wasn't using.

Not just any guitar. He lent me a Rickenbacker 360-12:

Rickenbacker 360-12


You can be forgiven if the words "Rickenbacker 360-12" don't send shivers up your spine. Guitar fetishes quickly grow tiresome to the uninitiated, and it's hilarious to me that adult men (I've never met a truly committed gearhead of the female persuasion) can be led to believe that ownership of one ax or another will automatically confer on the owner the mojo, the swagger, of the rock star who made it famous. Two minutes spent with Musician's Friend catalog sales-copy will show how silly gearheads can be.

But this -- this is a Rickenbacker 360-12, man! It played that chord!

What chord?

That chord, man! You gotta know the one I mean!

That chord!



Rickenbacker 360-12, another viewIn our overstimulated time, our computerized, synthesized, digitized, 500-channels-and-nothing-worth watching time, when even the word radical has been drained of its meaning, it's impossible -- we're so burnt! -- to know how brain-meltingly radical, how charged with promise, how laden with possibility, was that one overtone-soaked BLANNNNNG when it was first heard in 1964. Think about it: Was there ever a single noise, a single sonorous crashing KLANNNNG, that more totally changed everything that anyone knew? It was so...so...so... modern! But like all harbingers of change, this single electric crash, joyously, orgasmically received by its audience, was not unambiguously benign.

You could get badly lost -- and many, many people did indeed get lost -- in the universes that that one monstrous chord opens. Those overtones -- those ululating frequencies bashing violently against each other as the chord decays -- scream an unmistakable warning of twisted confusion dead ahead. When did the Sixties begin? Was it when Oswald's bullet hit Kennedy's cranium? When Johnson proffered the Great Society? When troop levels rose in Vietnam? I submit my own candidate for your consideration: That chord.



Like almost everything about that decade, that chord still sows dissension. The Sixties will forever be fought over; the chief, nearly defining characteristic of that decade's history is the hellish ambiguity of the changes it wrought. I confess my own ambivalence over things that I once considered unarguably positive; I can't help but intuit that I might have loathed the self-congratulation of the Woodstock Notion, or the gibbering stupidity of someone under the impression that an idea conceived on LSD deserves particular validity. I have, I suppose, grown up to that extent.

The iconic noise of that chord, as I say, is still fought over. Nothing that large, that explosively clangorous, can be pinned down and defined. Those attempting to do so will find themselves at odds with others in the field -- as this page at Wikipedia will attest. At that page, I count five musicologists -- at least three known to me as excellent scholars of the Beatles' musical output -- who cannot actually agree about the component notes or the harmonic function of that chord! In researching this post, I've found that even the magisterial Ian MacDonald, in my opinion the best and most sympathetic critic of the Beatles' recorded work, gets the component notes of the chord quite wrong, as do the authors of The Beatles: The Complete Scores (and not for the first time!).

What can we say about something so huge and yet so strangely ambiguous, both in composition and in meaning? What is it even possible to say? Best just to let the thing reverberate around in your head, speaking for itself. And speak it will.

Now hand me that guitar!

11 comments:

Gavin M. said...

At that page, I count five musicologists -- at least three known to me as excellent scholars of the Beatles' musical output -- who cannot actually agree about the component notes or the harmonic function of that chord!

Sounds like there's a piano chord underneath. George Martin factor.

robotslave said...

It's not often that someone can put a particular song in my head without humming a bar, or quoting a lyric, or naming the song, or the record it's on, or even the artist (and this one was stuck in the ear at the first italicized mention of that chord, well before I meandered down to the end of the post).

Well done.

I do notice, however, that while you're quick with the contempt for the music nerds, you yourself have wimped out in neglecting to give us any indication of which particular notes you yourself believe were involved in that pregnant clangor.

Neddie said...

Sounds like there's a piano chord underneath. George Martin factor.

Yep. Paul also plays a D on bass, which, I suspect, adds greatly to the musicological confusion.

you're quick with the contempt for the music nerds

Pish tosh! I like music nerds! I just think it's funny that they can't agree on what that chord is!

you yourself have wimped out in neglecting to give us any indication of which particular notes you yourself believe were involved in that pregnant clangor.

Hah! And expose my ignorance to my fellow music nerds?

You can get yourself into some mindbendingly abstruse technical jibber-jabber in this topic. The component notes of the chord are one thing, but naming the chord is the sticking point. If you call it an F6/9, you're implying it's based on the subtonic of the home key, which is a highly unconventional, and rather brilliant, choice; calling it a D7sus4 makes it a flavor of a more conventional introductory dominant. At this point the fistfight breaks out.

(Both these chords, F6/9 and D7sus4, are fretted exactly the same, you see. It's all in what you call them.)

I fall in the first-position D7sus4 camp. I don't hear the F in there that others do. I play that chord on this Rick 12 and it sounds exactly right. It sounds too defined, not open-ended enough, with the F.

It's constructed thus:

Low E string: Not struck
A string: I can't tell if it's struck or not. It doesn't matter; there's an A later on.
D string: Open. I hear no F.
G string: Second fret for an A
B string: First fret for a C
E string: Third fret for a G.

So, lowest to highest:

A
D
A
C
G

The real clue that this is the right spelling is that George plays the same A-C-G triad on the jangly arpeggios during the fade. That, for me, is probative.

Gavin M. said...

What's confusing the musicologists is that the piano chord has minor seconds lined up over a fist-sized area of the keyboard.

Listen to how the piano chord seems to change as the harmonics fight it out.

Gavin M. said...

...Let me amend that. It's a fist-sized cluster on the white keys.

Plus a snare hit, plus the Rick 360. I don't hear bass guitar in there at all.

Ben said...

F6/9? Who believes that? I'm way with you on the D7sus4, with no doubt in my mind. Never even considered an alternative or knew there was a debate.

I see why someone would want to call it an F, since this song is a prominent early example of the lads messing around with flat seventh/subtonic chords, and an initial F would add to this. In fact, the F chord that is undisputably in the song, i.e. the one under "Working like a" et al. may have begun life as a humble D. This only just occured to me listening to the take one recording in your subsequent post. Listen to Paul: he plays a D both times through. Pretty cool, eh?

But that first chord's a D7sus4.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

That chord handed The Police their entire career fifteen years later.

Neddie said...

Plus a snare hit, plus the Rick 360. I don't hear bass guitar in there at all.

Listen to Take 1 on the Anthology, where the piano isn't overdubbed. It's a high D, played at the 12th fret on the D string. It's really interesting to hear the different timbre of the Take 1 version. Apparently, Paul's bass fed back into John's microphone, causing some of that twittering. (This is from the liner notes from Anthology Vol. 1 [I think; I don't have it here at work].)

F6/9? Who believes that?

Did you read the stuff at Wikipedia? You'd be amazed what people believe.

The D Paul mistakenly plays during Take 1 is pretty good evidence that that F chord was a very fresh addition, don't you think? He sounds confused about which note he should be playing during the first iteration. Again, I don't have the liner notes here with me at work, but I think they even mention that.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

jeez if I had th' time to belabor my point I'd make a recording of The Chord and then The Chord five seconds into "Walking On The Moon".

Check it out. It's even in the same key. And since there's no piano or any other chordal overdubs you can hear how The Chord sounded on just one guitar.

It really makes me want to do a cover of "Walking On The Moon" and sample in the Hard Day's Night chord.

Right after I finish the rock opera I'm working on based on Yalta.

Anonymous said...

Here ya go!

http://youtube.com/watch?v=l3kNlD9YMJ4

Anonymous said...

People are talking about you (in a good way) at beatgearcavern dot com. There's a thread about your blog post in there.

Just a group of Beatle nuts who would love you to join in.

Best wishes,

Ivan.