I feel fine

A post by thecuriousastronomer prompts a few thoughts on “I Feel Fine” by the Beatles, a well known and much-loved song which demonstrates tellingly why the Beatles were – and indeed remain – so far above the everyday of popular song.

The lyrics I find very touching. Lennon conjures up the object of his affection who is as much in love with him as he is with her, as emphasised by a repeated phrase in the verse: “she says so”. But there’s more to it than that: “she says so” repeatedly, and her public pronouncements provide Lennon with satisfaction beyond even the rapture of their shared love. In the middle eight he declares that not only is he glad that she’s his, but he’s doubly glad that she’s “telling all the world”.

Perhaps this smacks of self-regard, but I think we can indulge this young man. In the third verse he speaks of himself in the third person:

That her baby buys her things, you know,

He buys her diamond rings you know. She said so.

By doing this Lennon casts himself as the hero of his own love song. What a splendid, generous chap he is, and how lucky is this girl to have his affection.

Yes, it is the forgivable arrogance of a young man in love, but placed in context this is no self-satisfied anthem, far less a machismo one. This is what love does: it elevates the people it touches and makes them want to tell all the world. It is, if you will, a love song to love.

How does Lennon choose to set this musically? He comes up with a catchy tune which perhaps on its own wouldn’t adequately serve the joyful, uplifting content of the lyric. No matter, because he places the tune in counterpoint to a perky guitar riff which serves as an obbligato figure that lifts the song to the required heights.

The riff is a fine inspiration. It begins with an octave leap on D natural and includes a C natural (the flat seventh) which establishes a blues tang at the outset. The skittishness of love is further suggested by another climb up to a high G (the riff encompasses nearly an octave and a half).The bluesy feel is then redoubled by repeating the same phrase down a whole tone – the C major seventh chord. This leads into the G major riff that establishes the tonic.

The tune mentioned above sets up a playful counterpoint with the riff which is further enhanced by Ringo’s inventive Latin-hued drumming. And the tune itself further toys with our expectations by presenting a six-bar verse “Baby’s good to me, you know…” with a four bar chorus “I’m in love with her…” In between the sung phrases that zesty obbligato rises to the surface.

The instrumental section is especially smart. It begins, predictably, with a guitar solo over the chords of the tune, but this only lasts for the first four bars. The next two bars (that is bars five and six of the six-bar phrase) are only “accompaniment” and lead us back to the introduction – the bluesy eight bar riff taking us through dominant and subdominant back to the tonic and a repeat of the verse-chorus section. So a ten-bar structure (the verse and chorus) interrupted by a middle eight (a fairly routine, but likeable one) leads to a fourteen-bar instrumental before the repeat. Unifying the whole thing is that intoxicating riff.

One should avoid making extravagant pleas for the song’s artistry, but it provides an example of the mainstream love song which extols its theme through refined craftsmanship and admirable technique. As a celebration of uncomplicated love, therefore, it might well be perfect.

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Posted in Popular music

Do you know … what key we’re in?

So many popular songs sit happily in one key. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: a skilful composer can get enough variety in the three to four minute span of a song to keep the listener’s interest without resorting to adventurous key changes. An engaging melody is a good starting point, and a few spicy, unexpected chords along the way can add tension.

More inventive songwriters will often including a few unassuming modulations: by making the verse modulate into a related key for the chorus for example, or by including a bridge passage that shifts the harmonic centre and then leads via a cadence back to the home key. A great deal of pleasure can be had in discovering the various technical refinements and imaginative touches that composers use to raise a three-minute ditty above the ordinary.

The really great song-writers can stretch the form in more ingenious and challenging ways. Think of Burt Bacharach at his best, or Jimmy Webb. Yet, while any composer with a firm grasp of form can add tricksy bits of business, employ unusual time-signatures, throw in some dissonance, it’s probably fair to say that the real accomplishment is in devising unexpected harmonic or structural shifts that grow naturally, that make sense, that convince. Consider, for example, Jimmy Webb’s poignant “Galveston”. There is a song that flows; it’s sing-a-long simple. Only, it’s not. Webb’s bar structure is peculiar – not because he wants to show you how sophisticated a song-writer he is, but because the melodic, and dramatic, flow of the song requires it.

For many years I have been fascinated by “Do you know where you’re going to?”, also known as the theme from “Mahogany”. This intriguing gem was composed by Michael Masser and has words by Carol King’s distinguished side-kick, the late Gerry Goffin. This is a popular song that resolutely refuses to sit happily in one key. Indeed, it presents itself as constantly modulating. That is to say, that it shifts its harmonic centre every four or eight bars. Only it doesn’t, quite. I’ll come back to what I mean by that later.

For those enviable people who have, attached to each side of their heads, what we are pleased to call “musical ears”, following the harmonic progress of a piece of music is a less confusing business than it is to me, and many others. I have a poor musical ear. I note key changes when they happen, and, if the change is a simple one I can often note its nature – from tonic to dominant or sub-dominant, say.  Most of the time, though, I am left foxed (though pleased) by the more recherché harmonic explorations of the better composers.

But I won’t be beaten. With an accurately-tuned ukulele on my knee to assist my duff ear, I have – painstakingly – found out the enigma of “Do you know where you’re going to?” and why what ought to sound like a scatterbrained rag-bag of a composition, is so coherent and compelling.

I am referring throughout this essay to the original recording made by Diana Ross.

The song is in Eb and alternates two melodies. The main melody in Eb, which we’ll call the verse and a second melody, the chorus, in C*. This alternating between the tonic and the submediant (the key based on the sixth degree of the scale**) can be used to high romantic effect. An obvious comparison would be with George Harrison’s “Something” which alternates C major and A major.

So we already have a fairly unusual  harmonic basis for the song, but the piece as a whole employs even more unexpected and delightful modulations to achieve its purpose. The composition begins, not in the tonic, but in Gb where the verse melody (or at least a close variant of it) is presented instrumentally. Note that the relationship between Gb (the introduction) and Eb (the tonic to which the introduction leads) is the same as the Eb-C relationship between the verse and chorus. We have already been prepared for the romantic submediant modulation that is central to the song. This is seductive songwriting.

The wistful verse melody (in both its main form and the variant that we hear first in the instrumental introduction) sets up the all-important tonic-submediant context because, over its brief four bars it smoothly, almost imperceptibly, suggests the possibility of the shift to the submediant harmonic centre. As a result, the key change it sets up seems entirely logical, indeed inevitable.

The brief Gb introduction then leads us to the song proper in Eb (and, as I indicated above) prepares us for the I-VI tension that is central to the song’s progress. Once we are in the tonic, however, a trick is played upon us (this is a teasing seduction). As I said above, the melody itself draws us from Eb into C. The very tune itself wants to lead into C major. Yet, the first time the melody is sung, instead of leading to the submediant, the fourth bar is extended by a beat (the time signature changes to 5/4 for a single bar) so the modulating phrase at the end, instead of being an upbeat figure leading us into a new section, and new key, ends impotently on a weak beat in the bar.

The melody is then repeated, simply, in the home key. So we haven’t changed key, yet, oddly, it feels like a harmonic shift because our ear has been prepared for C major but gets Eb major. We hear the four bars again but this time the final bar remains in 4/4 and the modulation that is “built into” the tune takes effect as an up-beat figure leading to the expected (but delayed) submediant modulation. Eb to C. And now we get a new tune – the chorus.

The chorus, incidentally, incorporates a peculiar rhythmic device. It is in a solid 4/4 until the last bar that is a beat and half shorter than expected (5/8 rather than 4/4)***.

The verse and chorus are repeated, though this time the second part of the verse is presented in its instrumental variant. There is a final sung verse followed by a repeat of the second half of the tune in its instrumental form and still in Eb. These four bars are then repeated twice more but first in A (where did that come from?) and then in Gb (as in the introduction). The final statement in Gb modulates at the end and leaves us (feeling simultaneously at home and hopelessly unresolved) in the tonic Eb.

“Do you know where you’re going to” is roughly three and a half minutes long, and in that time it changes key seven times (or eight if you count that final Eb resolution). And when it’s not changing key it is teasing the ear with “false” modulations (where the first half of the verse sets up the expectation of a key change which is then confounded by the repeat in the home key).

Clever stuff, certainly, but is this simply technical – empty – bravado? I would say not. Structuring the composition on a sequence of harmonic modulations is an appropriate musical response to the lyric. The title of the song is a question: “Do you know where you’re going to?” and the song itself poses a philosophical question (albeit in the most colloquial, every-day and non-academic sense). Are you in control of your life? Is this where you wanted to be, or thought that you might be? When you look back do you have regrets? What are you hoping for? As such it is a telling summation of the kind of head-scratching most of us do pretty much every day. What better way might there be, therefore, to set this universal metaphysical exploration, than by leading the listener through a sequence of questioning harmonic shifts with a melody that is at once immediately affecting and harmonically wayward?

The song, as recorded by Diana Ross, should be further praised for its taste and restraint. I am aware that, in the previous paragraph, I referred to the song’s philosophical, metaphysical and universal concerns. I also, of course, specified its “every day” aspects. The people who created that song, performance and recording had the measure of it, and their taste must be acknowledged. There is no bombast here, or self-importance. The orchestral arrangement is refined and elegant, the backing chorus used sparingly though effectively. It remains a chamber piece, pensive and warm. It is stylish and peculiar and certainly to be cherished.

* Anyone who has approached popular song with analytical intent, will have been dismayed by the seeming interchangeable use of such expressions as verse, chorus, refrain, middle eight, bridge etc. I ask simply that you allow me my verse / chorus distinction for the purposes of the current essay. I use them here merely for convenience and without any proscriptive intent.

** The sixth degree of the scale, of course gives you the relative minor, so Eb major becomes C minor, or C major becomes A minor. Changes of this kind, though, are as much modal shifts as key changes since the scale remains the same. In the case of “Do you know” or, indeed “Something”, the shift is to a major scale based on the sixth note, which necessarily introduces pitches alien to the home key and therefore represents a key change.

*** I’m not entirely sure that I have described this rhythmic nicety correctly. A friend to whom I read the piece thinks that the time signatures I propose are wrong. I’d be happy to receive any corrections in the comments, but I think that my stipulation of 4/4 plus 5/8 can stand for the time being on the time-honoured principle of its being close enough for jazz.

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Posted in Popular music

A different side of Joni Mitchell

One of my first ever blog posts was about Joni Mitchell. In that essay, I made the point that a lot of Mitchell’s songs were, to use her own word, “theatre”. That is to say that, even though she frequently favours a “first person” narrative approach in her songs, the “I” is not necessarily Joni. Sometimes, though, her songs are personal and – indeed – confessional.

One such is Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody from her 1982 album Wild Things Run Free. The song also touches on her political and environmental concerns, but at its core it is nostalgic and ruefully reflective and at times acutely personal.

Nostalgia is the nub. The Chinese Cafe of the title is where the young Joni and her friends (in particular a friend called Carol, to whom the song is addressed) would spend time “dreaming on [their] dimes” as they fed the jukebox. The favourite jukebox number was the Hy Zaret and Alex North classic Unchained Melody; and it is the opening phrase of Unchained Melody picked out in an unadorned C major that we hear first.

Unadorned, yes, but placed over a brooding pedal note, on a synthesiser, of D natural. Immediately, then, Mitchell has set up a harmonic tension that will pervade the whole song. After the statement of the Unchained phrase we slip into the song’s main key, D major with a bass guitar figure that settles on E natural providing a harmonic suspension that establishes further the sense of nostalgic ache.

The main verse of the song follows. Here we have yet another example of Mitchell’s gift for creating natural, conversational melodies. The tune, at first, fits into a fairly orthodox four-bar pattern but Mitchell’s natural tendency to phrase across bar lines soon wrong-foots us, so that by the time we get to the third phrase of the tune (“My child’s a stranger. I bore her…”) the melodic line is extended into a fifth bar. Bar six begins with a telling rest before: “…but I could not raise her” leading into a seventh bar. A second strain to the tune follows (repeating the words “nothing last for long”) which is also a seven-bar phrase.

This leads into the chorus – “Down at the Chinese Cafe we’d be dreaming on our dimes. We’d be playing…” beginning with a repeated C-natural, heightening that tension between C and D that was established at the outset. The second part of the chorus is a direct quotation from the beloved jukebox song Unchained Melody in C major. As we dip into the classic chord progression it feels as though we have settled into the home key. But, of course, we’re not really in C (that’s an illusion). The familiar C-Am-F-G progression of Unchained is curtailed, uncomfortably. Mitchell substitutes the expected dominant chord, G with a D to bring us back to the present day, the real home key, and bitter-sweet musings with those E natural suspensions on the bass which opened the song.

The next verse follows closely the musical path of the first. Here Joni expresses concerns about the property developers “tearin’ the old landmarks down” and “rippin’ off Indian land again”. The ensuing chorus, this time, quotes not from Unchained, but from Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

It is only at the end of the third verse, in which Mitchell returns to personal matters, and to Carol, “This girl of my childhood games, has kids nearly grown and gone”, that we are finally allowed to dwell on the comforting C major nostalgia of Unchained Melody with an entire verse – with its C-Am-F-G progression – quoted.

Bitterness and regret win the day however. The final cadence of Unchained Melody clearly should lead to C major – “God speed your love to me”. That “to” sitting on the dominant preparing us for the tonic C natural (“…me”). Yet, Mitchell substitutes D natural, and the D major with suspended seconds fades out at the end of the song, with Joni singing “Time goes. Where does the time go?” repeatedly.

As a friend of mine recently put it, the “important thing about Joni Mitchell is … that she composed songs of a musical sophistication, a verbal complexity and an expressive perspicacity all too rare in popular music”. Ain’t that the truth?

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A near-forgotten masterpiece

The Cello Sonata by John Foulds is a shamefully neglected work. I could list – could not we all? – dozens of pieces that I love that are neglected, but, as often as not, I’d have to admit grudgingly that those pieces were challenging, difficult or eccentric and, therefImageore, perhaps, rather difficult to approach. The Foulds Sonata is certainly eccentric, but it is – to a large extent by dint of its very eccentricity – warm, open-hearted, tuneful, engaging and, surely, approachable.

Let me leave aside my bafflement at its neglect and concentrate, rather, on encouraging you, dear reader, to listen to this beguiling, affirmative, inventive wonder of a composition.

It is important to say that the Cello Sonata is experimental, surprisingly so for a work written in 1906 (though revised in 1927 – it is not clear how many of the work’s more avant garde elements were added during its revision). Foulds was a man before his time. In the 1930s, for example, long before our current interest in so-called world music, Foulds was working with Indian traditional musicians. Alas, though, his compositions from this period all seem to be lost. But even in this earlier work, we encounter surprising dissonances, disruptive rhythms and even quarter-tones.


These experimental elements are employed skilfully to give the Cello Sonata an arresting, individual character. But the affection that I feel for it – and I’m certain you’ll agree with me – derives from its downright Dvorakian melodic warmth. Even if you don’t have time to hear to the whole piece (the more fool you) listen to its central Lento movement (starting at 9:00). The dark-hued introduction has the cello strumming questioningly until the piano arrives to lighten the texture with winsome hints of melody, though a shift to major-key harmonies is only arrived at slowly. When that hint of warmth arrives, it gives the cello heart to embark upon a song. The piano seems to provide assurance, and between them they spin out a lengthy, lovely melody. Despite the sweetness, tenderness and, at times, restrained passion, presently the melody falters, droops and leads back to a reminiscence of the opening music, cloudy and foreboding – the cello here playing eerie, wintry quarter-tone shifts. And we only return – rapturously – to that enchanting big melody via an episode that is introspective and impressionistic. It seems inevitable that, after a repeat of the cello’s song, we go back to the dark opening music. But, once again, there is a thaw as the harmonies shift, hopefully, towards the movement’s close. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Incidentally, the performance on youtube linked to here is a fairly recent recording by the excellent Watkins brothers: Cellist Paul (who has now joined the inestimable Emerson Quartet) and pianist Huw. The CD that it is taken from includes music by Parry, Delius and Granville Bantock. I would consider it an essential acquisition. But if you are as taken by this gorgeous music as I am, you should also try to hunt down an earlier recording by Jo Cole and John Talbot, released under the auspices of the British Music Society. While Cole and Talbot can’t quite match the Watkins Brothers over all, for me at least, they do have the edge in the slow movement, where they seem a little more attuned to its peculiar autumnal beauty. 

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Posted in Classical music

Sunday moods

ImageJohn Updike’s short story, “Sunday Teasing” is delicately bitter. The story describes just a few hours in the married life of Arthur and Macy. There is tenderness between them, yet we can’t help but feel that the marriage is doomed. Arthur tries hard but fails to connect with Macy. The problem is that Arthur approaches life with an over-developed sense of irony. At the beginning of the story he reads to Macy from St Paul. He chooses a particular passage that was a favourite of his grandfather’s. “He loved reading that to my mother,” he says. “It infuriated her”.

Macy is not infuriated, but she is clearly frustrated. She detects a flippancy in Arthur that she finds puzzling. And while Arthur’s smart-Alec demeanour is not intended – at least not consciously – to goad Macy, he lacks the sensitivity to see the effect that his behaviour is having on his wife. When a friend joins them for Sunday lunch, the conversation takes an unfortunate turn, resulting in even greater tension between Macy and Arthur, which remains after the guest’s departure.

Supper-time came. Macy mentioned that she didn’t feel well and couldn’t eat a bite. Arthur put Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert on the record-player and, rousing his wife from the Sunday Times, insisted that she, who had been raised on Scarlatti and Purcell, take notice of Jess Stacy’s classic piano solo on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, which he played twice, for her benefit.

I don’t want to write much more about “Sunday Teasing”. The more I say, the more that I’ll detract from the quiet, nuanced power of Updike’s story. I do, nonetheless, want to indulge myself to this extent: to delight in Updike’s smart choice of music for the characters in his story, and to delight further in Goodman’s downright sublime rendition of “Sing Sing Sing”.


That Arthur chose this track to play to play to his wife, shows him to be a man of genuine complexity and intellect. That he chose it at a time when there were tensions between them, and when Macy was feeling under the weather, is telling. No true music lover (Macy was raised on Scarlatti and Purcell) could fail to acknowledge the absolute and gleeful mastery of that performance. Yet, at the same time, anyone of refined musical sensibilities (Macy was raised on Scarlatti and Purcell) with a mild headache and filled with concerns about the future of the relationship with her husband, could well be affronted by the pitiless bacchanale that Goodman’s band provides, and the audible vulgar delight with which the audience responds.

The whole track is driven by Gene Krupa’s sensuous, sexy, delirious drumming and along the way we get crisp, galvanising ensemble playing and some brief characterful (disreputably characterful) solos. Finally we get Goodman’s sinuous, insinuating, louche yet soulful solo underpinned by Jess Stacy’s increasingly questioning piano chords and arpeggios. And then Goodman gives Stacy his head, and the whole rambunctious, joyful, party focuses in on Stacy’s off-the-cuff piano impromptu (forgive my seeming tautology: it was inescapable). Stacy begins in bubbly style, true swing, yet calling to mind the ragtime and stride pianists that were his precursors, before embarking on a more exploratory trail. Krupa, no doubt sensing that something special was happening, quietens his relentless beating. Stacy then gives us the eye of the storm; a musing, wayward exploration of the possibilities provided by Louis Prima’s crowd-pleasing chord progression.

Had Stacy played this solo passage in 1960 (rather than 1938), the listener might well have thought it a witty précis of the keyboard styles of the previous 30 years. He sounds at times like Oscar Peterson, even Thelonious Monk. It’s heart-warning to hear the murmurs of approval from an audience clearly appreciating this subtle music as much as they’d thrilled to the breathtaking, brazen rush that had gone before. As he goes on, Stacy introduces more of the teasing, impressionistic figurations with which he’d accompanied Goodman’s solo moments before, and then allows his music to vanish with a succession of insouciant, shoulder-shrugging harmonies. There is raucous affirmation from the audience and, finally, the full band returns, brash and brilliant.

Even without Stacy’s unassuming little miracle of a solo, this performance would have gone down in history. Even when Goodman’s band blows insanely, there’s a flow and logic to the performance. The arrangement has enough textural variety in it to satisfy the most demanding of listeners. The trumpet solo that begin at 5:29 is magical, achieving its greatest effect one minute later when, just as when its chattering threatens to take it far away from the musical material it is based upon, it wrong-foots the listener by meeting the band head-on in a forthright statement of the main tune.

With the addition of the extraordinary piano solo, however, the performance graduates from mere brilliance to sheer transcendence.

It’s heady stuff. Play it loud for it’s as good as jazz music gets. But what of Macy? What might she have made of it? Had she considered Stacy’s subtle and elusive contribution, perhaps she’d have begun to understand her husband better: smart and sassy, to be sure, but perhaps also warm, witty and quicksilver. In all likelihood, though, she’d have heard the swaggering, masculine, unshaven whole of the track and wondered why Arthur insisted upon teasing her.

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Posted in Popular music

BLESS – AY 1. Happy Days.

A friend has created a new blog, called vastland. Do visit and read his inaugural blessay. What’s a blessay? You’ll need to read it to find out.


England isn’t living through happy days. Despair at the cost of living, stringent attacks on welfare, political confusion and the storms, currently battering our coastline, ensure this is so. It’s February 15th 2014. And I’m writing the very first entry for my blog. Not with any intension to dramatically change the state of the nation, but casually inform, instruct, hopefully entertain myself and others: give people a happier day! I’m too old and undisciplined to start a diary or journal. The only time I tried that was in my early thirties and the result was too gushingly existential and introspective. I’ve written the occasional essay, book or film review but I never felt I put my heart into it. They always appeared the scribblings of an unpaid hack journalist. Now the world of the electronic blogosphere has tempted my ego to have its day, and its say, channel my thoughts into blog…

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Cheery, inconsequential pop music, be damned

The Americans in the blogosphere are going Beatle mad at the moment. It seems that we have just passed the fiftieth anniversary of the Fab Four first landing on American soil. Delightful.

I’ve just read a blog post (one among many) about this happy event. This particular post chose to concentrate more on the post-Beatles work of John Lennon than on the body of work created by the group itself. It was an interesting read. I know comparatively little of John’s work from the 1970s and so it always intrigues me to hear what others make of it (saving up the knowledge against the day when I will find time to explore it for myself!)

I did take issue, though, with some of the attitudes expressed in the blog post. The piece was well written and made good points, and certainly the writer was well aware of the problematic aspects of Lennon the song-writer: his arrogance, his solipsism, his pretensions. Nonetheless, the essay fell back all-too-easily on that old notion: that music somehow has greater validity, and indeed value, if it is “raw”, “honest”, “uncompromising” and so on, regardless of the intrinsic merit of the craftsmanship on display (I should also note that the piece was more occupied by Lennon the word-smith than with Lennon the tune-smith).

The writer of the piece in question sees lots to admire in Lennon’s post-Beatles work, yet finds the Beatles’ music too cheery and sweet. Fair enough: that’s a subjective opinion. I did, however, want to take (gentle, polite) exception to this seeming dismissal of the group. When I began to formulate a comment to leave on the blog post, I found myself being too long-winded, so I decided that it was best to create a blog post of my own. And this is it.

The Beatles were a mainstream pop group offering their fans cheery, catchy pop tunes. But it is important to see that they were doing so – even from their very beginnings – with a level of sophistication (both musical and lyrically) that was extremely rare within that pop mainstream. You could let so many of their songs wash over you (relishing their verve and sweetness) but surely any music lover should be attuned to their many innovative and delightful quirks.

I’d like to explore just one example, from dozens that I could give. “It Won’t Be Long” (appropriately, one of Lennon’s songs) is no masterpiece, but it is a little gem. It has all the catchiness and breathless fun of a good pop hit of the era, and yet, within its short span includes several, innovative touches. It opens with the chorus which is, somewhat unusually, in a minor key. The major-key verse that follows has an unexpected harmonic shift making the opening three-bar phrase unsettlingly chromatic. Here we have a short phrase, starting with the tonic E and descending to the dominant B, that manages to include all the possible (chromatic) pitches in between (note though that C# is only included as a grace note – when John sings “Every night” he slides from C# to B on “nigh-ight”). This kind of melodic approach would be unremarkable in a piece by Strauss or Wagner or in a melody by a be-bop jazz composer, but in a piece of bubble-gum pop at the time it was downright avant-garde! The verse is equally quirky rhythmically. Instead of rounding off the first three-bar phrase to four bars (as you would expect), Lennon launches immediately into a repeat, resulting in a seven bar verse (i.e. three plus four bars, rather than the text-book four plus four) which gives the song an urgency that matches its premise (“It won’t be long – yeah yeah”). The middle eight is more orthodox, though still very accomplished with its backing-vocals counterpoint.

So, here there is a bouncy pop tune that could go unnoticed among all the up-beat inconsequential records of the time. Or at least it could until someone took the trouble actually to listen to it. There’s sunshine, sure, but there is shadow in those chromatic notes in the verse. And does the high-spirited sexual urgency (“It won’t be long…”) gain a hint of danger by dint of that unexpectedly short (three rather than four bar) opening phrase of the verse? And is there something not entirely wholesome in the adolescent longing of that minor-key chorus, and the drooping countermelody of the middle eight?

Lennon went on to write even better songs, and any number of really great ones. I would contend, though, that his greatness lies not in his “rawness” (which is often just truculence) nor in his “uncompromising honesty” (which is often mere posturing) but in his ability to take the basic building blocks of the pop song and create something unexpected, delightful, and entirely without contrivance. That is true art.

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Posted in Popular music

Oh, Mr Copper, can you sing me a love song?


Bob Copper, his uncle John, his cousin Ron and his father, taken in the 1950s

In 1898 in the small town of Rottingdean in Sussex in South England, the landlord of the Black Horse Inn, a man by the name of Thomas Copper, and his brother James, were summoned to Northgate House, one of the grandest houses in the area, and one which was owned by Edward Carson QC, MP.

Carson was a brilliant Irish lawyer who had known Oscar Wilde when they were both students at Trinity College Dublin. Several years before the events of the evening that I am about to describe, Carson and Wilde met again when the former was engaged by the Marquess of Queensbury to fight the libel action that Wilde had brought against him. On hearing that Carson was to oppose him in the courts, Wilde remarked “No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend”. This rueful joke proved to be prescient. Carson’s defence activity not only destroyed Wilde’s case, but led to the criminal prosecution that was to see Wilde imprisoned for two years and then exiled.

In subsequent years, Carson was to become the leading light of the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland and to hold a number of offices of state. He would become Sir Edward and then Lord Carson. In 1935 he was one of the very few non-royal personages ever to be given a state funeral.

Notwithstanding Carson’s significant influence on the cultural and political events of his time, he is merely a tangential figure in the story that I want to tell. The Copper brothers had been invited to Northgate House not by Carson himself, but by one of his house guests, a lady by the name of Mrs Kate Lee.

Mrs Lee, at the time aged 40, was from a respectable middle class Nottinghamshire family. She however became fascinated by music and even began to train to be a singer at the Royal College of Music. A stage career, however, eluded her. She married and had two children. But music would not let her go, and it was her interest in traditional music that prompted her to invite the Copper brothers up to Edward Carson’s house. James and Thomas Copper were known locally as fine singers with a repertoire of songs that they learned from their father, and grandfather. When they arrived at Northgate House, Mrs Lee invited them to sit at a table, on which was set a bottle of whisky, a jug of water and two glasses. Mrs Lee sat opposite, with pencil and paper and bade them drink and sing. She later described the experience:

They were so proud of their Sussex songs and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear, and when I questioned them as to how many they thought they could sing, they said they thought about “half a hundred.” You had only to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once.

“Oh, Mr Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?” It did not matter what it was they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go. Mr Thomas Copper’s voice was as flexible as a bird’s. He always sang the under part of the song like a sort of obbligato, impossible at first hearing to put down…

It’s hardly surprising that Kate Lee was unable to set down words and music with her busy pencil on first hearing. Indeed the Copper brothers were invited back to the house on a few more occasions so that she could get the songs down properly. The Copper brothers’ songs were often metrically irregular, and were sung in harmony. So fascinated was Mrs Lee with the “Copper-full of old Sussex songs” that she’d taken down that she annotated them and published them in volume 1, no 1 of the journal of the Folk Song Society that she was setting up with some friends. These friends included the likes of Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood (who was a member of the famous piano-manufacturing family). In recognition of their contribution the Copper brothers were invited to join this illustrious group as honorary members.

We can readily imagine how impressed, even awestruck, the Copper family would have been by their association with these rich and influential personages. How proud they must have been that the quality of their musicianship was being recognised in this way.

Not a bit of it. In fact the incident was hardly spoken of in Rottingdean and was soon forgotten. The Coppers continued, however, to value their songs and the tradition they represented. James Copper wrote down some of the family songs in later life, and his sons John and James continued the family singing tradition, and noted down even more of the canon. With the rapid social changes taking place at the turn of the 20th century and then the trauma of the Great War, they recognised that they were custodians of something precious and increasingly rare (though I doubt they themselves would have put it in those terms!)

After the Second World War, there was another wave of interest in traditional music and the Copper family were discovered anew. By this time, the next generation of singers included not only John and James but a further generation – John’s son Ron and, most significantly, James’s son Bob.

Bob Copper, who died just ten years ago, was a singer, poet, painter and historian. He collated and recorded much of the detail that we now know about the remarkable Copper family. By the 1950s the Copper family were seen as a kind of living Rosetta Stone by the folk song revivalists, and they were to feature in broadcasts and concerts all over the world, even appearing at the Royal Albert Hall.

At first, though, Bob, despite having become the family historian was completely unaware of the role played by Kate Lee. It was his father, James – or Jim – who made the connection. Bob recounted:

I didn’t know anything about this until after we done our first broadcast in 1950. Then Frank Collinson [a song collector, who became musical director of the BBC’s Country Magazine programme] came down and noted down all the other songs Dad knew […W]e’re sitting in the cottage and [Frank] said “By the way, Jim,” he said, “Do you think you are any relation of the two Mr Coppers … who were noted down – gave songs to a Mrs Lee?” And the old man says, “Yeh, well, that’ll be my old dad and my uncle Tom” […] But what I like to point out is that Dad, Uncle John, Ron and I kept the songs alive ‘cause we loved them, not because our grandfather had been noted down for the Folk Song Society – we didn’t know it existed until 1951.

To a music lover and closet romantic like me, this story is poignant, even magical. I’d love to know more about the friendship between the obviously sensitive and artistic Kate Lee and the august and forbidding Edward Carson. Was Carson interested in her folk song researches, or was he merely indulging her, out of a sense of the duties of hospitality? And what did the Copper brothers make of the whole thing? That they were largely unimpressed by their brush with the great and the good is perhaps not all that surprising when we consider the kind of  men they were, and the nature of the society in Rottingdean at the time. Bob Copper has remarked that there is something in the Copper family make-up which drives its members to “better themselves”. In the case of James and Tom, they both found time to attend classes in the village, despite having to go to work even before they were teenagers, and having to pay a penny for each class they attended. So they both learned to read and write at a time when literacy among farming people was still fairly unusual. They clearly had a sense of self-worth. And this might well have been redoubled by the knowledge they had of their place in their rural community. In 1898, Rottingdean and the surrounding areas had become popular as a place for “second homes”, particularly for artistic and literary types. Rudyard Kipling moved in, as did Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Alfred Noyes. In 1906 Hilaire Belloc grumbled about how fine Rottingdean had been “before the aesthetes turned it pure Cockney twenty years ago”. Leaving aside Belloc’s snooty (if amusing) remark, it seems worth pointing out that, while the likes of Edward Carson were “blow ins”, the Copper family had been a respected presence in the area since at least the 16th century. Forelock tugging was clearly not deemed necessary.

I was fortunate in being able to see, and hear, the great Bob Copper a year or so before he died in 2004. At Cecil Sharp House in London (the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which has now subsumed Kate Lee’s Folk Song Society) I listened to him on stage with Peggy Seeger. The two old stagers swapped reminiscences and, for every song that Bob remembered from his Sussex youth, Peggy had an Appalachian variant that she remembered. I couldn’t believe my luck in being in their presence. And the Copper Family sang. With his children and grandchildren joining in, Bob told us proudly that his family had now been singing the same songs for at least seven generations. Little wonder that these Coppers are un-cowed in the presence of the likes of Sir Edward Carson.

Kate Lee did not make audio recordings of the Coppers that she met, but this, from 1955, with Bob and his brother Ron singing could well approximate the sounds that Mrs Lee heard. The ninth verse, with its reference to a “boy with a tractor” was written and added by Bob’s father, Jim.


You can hear in this the kind of idiosyncrasies of rhythm that must have been difficult for an academic musician like Mrs Lee to note down.

I wonder whether Kate Lee knew about the Copper family before heading down to Rottingdean. Perhaps she got herself invited down to stay with Edward Carson in order to meet them. Or maybe it was pure coincidence that she was staying with her friend and then heard about these remarkable local singers. Either way, those whisky-lubricated meetings at the end of the 19th century are the stuff of legend.

As for Kate Lee, she died far too young, alas, in 1904. Her maiden name, by the way, was Spooner. It seems that she was the first cousin of the Reverend Spooner who gave his name to the spoonerism. I love these odd connections. The oddest connections, though, are with Carson, Kate and the Coppers. Fate throws up these moments. As the musicologist Vic Gammon points out, their meeting was unlikely to happen: “There is a myth … that late Victorian and Edwardian England was swarming with folk song collectors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The significant collectors were very few in number and they made contact with a tiny percentage of the rural population, and an even tinier number of the urban population … When Kate Lee ‘discovered’ the Coppers she knew she found something special”.

I leave the last word to the special Bob Copper, who sums up perfectly why we love music so much:

I love poetry, but I think music is the most violent reaction. It physically buggers me up, or lifts me up and gets a light frothy mood … But I can still be sent by Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and things. I can turn myself inside out. Silly old bugger really.

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Posted in Popular music

A very peculiar carol

Since it is still – just – Christmas, I’d like to say something about a traditional Yuletide carol.

Many hymns and carols as sung in the mainstream Christian churches tend to be fairly predictable rhythmically and melodically. This is unsurprising since they’re intended for community singing. Every now and again, though, one comes across something a bit peculiar.

I’m sure that I must have heard the Sussex Carol dozens of times over the years, but it was only this Christmas Eve, accompanying my mother (who sings in the choir) to the Christmas service at her local church, that I realised how delightfully odd this song is.

In case you need reminding of the tune, here is a lovely arrangement by Philip Ledger performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.


The first part of the tune is fairly unremarkable, but then it becomes beguilingly unpredictable. As so often with the more eccentric hymn tunes, this one has its roots in folk music. My copy of the Oxford Book of Carols includes as part of a short note: “Melody and text from Mrs Verrall, Monks Gate, Sussex”. Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down the song as performed by Harriet Verrall and liked it so much that he included an arrangement of it in his Eight Traditional English Carols published in 1919. Alas, Harriet Verrall died in 1918 and so didn’t see her song in print.

Vaughan Williams notates the tune in 6/4, which begins, as I mentioned above, fairly unremarkably with two four-bar phrases (identical phrases, in fact). These are followed by two three-bar phrases, which make for a kind of musical change-of-gear. The second of the two three-bar phrases, however, is extended, making the second strain of the tune asymmetrical. Vaughan Williams annotates this by making the first bar 9/4, so adding three beats to the phrase. The first bar of each of these three bar phrases introduces a more declamatory feel contrasting with the sprightly one-two-three rhythm of the first part of the tune. The first – setting the words “News of great…” is echoed in the first bar of the second phrase (“News of our…”), but the repeat is elongated (two minims and a crotchet becoming three minims). The effect is delightful.

The overall structure therefore is made up of eight bars followed by six bars giving 14 bars. But since the final phrase of the tune includes a bar of 9/4, giving three extra beats, we have to say that the melody is 14-and-a-third bars long.

I’m sure there are more tunes that are 14-and-a-third bars long, but off-hand I can’t think of any…

Incidentally, as we’re on the twelfth night of Christmas, and keeping with the topic of songs with unusual bar structures, we might just think for a moment about the peculiar structure of that old favourite The Twelve Days of Christmas. Here is a song that gives the lie to the notion that sing-a-long songs need to be rhythmically simple. It slips effortlessly between four-to-the-bar and three-to-the-bar throughout. And it makes for lusty singing.

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Posted in Classical music

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Missing Composer


In the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson spends some time trying to crack the enigma that is his new friend, Mr Holmes. He decides to adopt the deductive approach that his subject has already described for him, beginning by making a list of Sherlock’s qualities. Number 10 on this list is “Plays the violin well”.

Holmes, then, was an accomplished musician, at least by Watson’s estimation. On this point, Watson later elaborates.

I see that I have alluded above to his powers upon the violin. These were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favourites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his armchair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine. I might have rebelled against these exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated them by playing in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience.

Music lovers would, of course, expect that Holmes, with his sharp, analytical mind would favour Bach as a composer. I am no Holmes scholar, but, as far as I know, there is no moment in any of the Conan Doyle stories where he attempts to play Bach. A plot twist in The Mazarin Stone hinges on his playing not J.S., but Offen Bach [joke (c) Victor Borge] but other than that, the only named composer that Holmes is heard performing in the stories is Mendelssohn*.

This would make sense. The divine Felix was hugely popular in late Victorian England, so it is unremarkable that Watson would request from Holmes (as an antidote to the great detective’s distracted noodling which the old soldier found trying) “some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder”. I can’t help wondering what particular Mendelssohn tunes were in Holmes’s repertoire. It’s not impossible that he included, in his informal recitals, melodies drawn from Mendelssohn’s many songs. And, if this were the case, it is pleasing to speculate that the tunes heard might have included some composed by Felix’s sister, Fanny. Amongst the songs published under Felix’s name were included numerous, unattributed, compositions by the talented but neglected Fanny.

It is more likely, however, that the Lieder referred to by Watson were the Lieder ohne Worte that Mendelssohn wrote and published throughout his lifetime. These Songs without Words were short piano pieces published in sets of six and much prized by amateurs for home music-making as well as being popular in professional recitals. These much loved pieces, however, have perhaps done the composer’s reputation a disservice. In the preface to his indispensable book Mendelssohn: a Life in Music, R. Larry Todd writes:

[…] the piano miniatures that became celebrated in middle-class parlours … the vast majority of which Mendelssohn published without specific titles, acquired from their publishers in the second half of the nineteenth century all manner of insipid titles – “Consolation”, “May Breezes,” and the like – titles that Mendelssohn never would have authorized but that ultimately reinforced the view of him as a purveyor of maudlin piano music.

Todd, rightly, takes issue with the “persistent idea of Mendelssohn as a genteel lightweight”. I do, too, but refer you, as a corrective, to Todd’s book, where the battle against Felix’s detractors is fought with far greater scholarship, and crisper prose that I can muster. I shall merely present myself as grunting enthusiastic canon-fodder in the campaign he is waging; a campaign that is gaining ground, I’m pleased to report.

As we’re on the subject of war, and to get back to Baker Street, I want to mention the series of Hollywood films that appeared from 1939 onwards in which Basil Rathbone impersonated Sherlock Holmes in great style. His sidekick on these cinematic excursions was Nigel Bruce; not an ideal Watson, but a cherishable one. These low-budget B-movies shifted the World’s Greatest Detective from Victorian London to the present day, and had him apply his mighty intellect to problems of international espionage, and the sinister goings-on in Europe that were more likely to preoccupy audiences of the time. In short, these films pitted Sherlock Holmes against the Nazis.

I’ve only seen a couple of these film over the years, but they have great charm, and can certainly be recommended.

Sherlock Holmes as Britain’s secret weapon during World War II is an appealing notion, and, to an extent receives sanction from the detective’s creator. Conan Doyle went on writing Sherlock Holmes stories right up to the First World War and, in His Final Bow, has Holmes foil the plans of a German agent. For all his individuality and lack of deference to authority, Holmes had a patriotic streak and was pleased to set his piercing gaze upon his country’s enemies. Had he been alive in the 1940s, and still hale and hearty in his ninth decade, it would be natural for him again to place his talents at the disposal of a beleaguered nation.

Since we’re given licence, let’s imagine, then, what might have happened had Holmes been in Germany in the run-up to the War, where he might have found himself engaged by a mysterious occurrence involving the composer whose melodies he played so well on his fiddle.

R Larry Todd refers to this incident in his book. In 1936 the London Philharmonic Orchestra was touring in Germany. The Orchestra’s conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, paid a visit one afternoon to the Leipzig Gewandhaus and saw there the statue of Felix Mendelssohn that had stood outside the Hall since 1892, proudly commemorating the great composer’s association with the city. But when Beecham returned the following day, with a delegation of musicians, intending to lay a floral tribute at the statue’s feet, they discovered to their astonishment that the monument had vanished.

There are delicious possibilities here for fiction: the music loving Holmes, and England’s most famous conductor – noted as much for his tart wit as for his skills with the baton – paired up in Leipzig to solve the Mystery of the Vanishing Composer.

Alas, though, it hardly needs a Sherlock to explain the disappearance of Mendelssohn’s statue from that Leipzig square. Already in 1936, Mendelssohn’s music had pretty much disappeared from German concert halls, and it would be many years before it was heard again.

In 1947 a bust of Mendelssohn was placed pro tempore on the site of the destroyed statue. But it wasn’t until 1993 that a new statue was unveiled. Mendelssohn is taking his place in the pantheon of the great composers, overcoming the prejudice that has been clinging to him since the days when his sweet, frank melodies were used to assuage the disgruntlement of an Afghan-hand in a Marylebone sitting room.

Note: the image that I have used above was found here. It is an illustration for The Sign of Four by Ugo Matania and appeared in a 1948 Italian edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

* As I said, I am no Holmes scholar so would be pleased to receive a correction on this point.

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Posted in Classical music