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
6 comments on “Cheery, inconsequential pop music, be damned
  1. JDB says:

    Great stuff as always, GHB. I hope the blogger whose post you reference sees your piece and weighs in.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thanks JDB. And thanks for finding the youtube clip of the song. I never imagined that there’d exist footage of a performance of this number! As far as I can tell they are miming rather than playing live (which gives John the chance to indulge in a little clowning, such as his peculiar little dance move right at the end). They look so happy and relaxed, and it’s quite touching to see John and Paul share a conspiratorial grin at one point.

  2. Nice! I too think that the early Beatles are underrated, and that for all that the stuff from and after 1965-66 is obviously great, their early stuff is both subtler and more powerful than pretty much anything else happening in popular music of the period. I wrote a blog post in which I showed what was in the UK Top 20 the week Love Me Do was released, and if you listen to the accompanying Spotify playlist, you get a good sense of the largely awful backdrop of early 60s pop music, against which the Beatles emerged as something rawer, tougher and more thoughtful.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thanks, factorysunburst, for dropping by and leaving kind comments. I appreciate it. I was intrigued by your project of placing Beatles singles in their (hit parade) context, which struck me as one of those good ideas that surely someone should have thought of before now.

      I don’t want to undermine your point about the outstanding-ness of the Beatles in the charts at the time, but I do think that a few of the records in the Top 20 you list have some merit. You said yourself that the backdrop was “largely awful”, which statement I won’t contest: you didn’t, after all, say “uniformly awful”. Nonetheless, I thought I’d like to leave a comment on your post fighting the corner for a few of the unfortunate platters that the Fab Four sent spinning away like so many wobbly frisbees.

  3. Your points about some of those records are well taken. I didn’t mean to imply that I have no time for pre-Beatles pop music. I’m sure you too feel that the period of popular music which we now think of as being the time when the ‘Great American Songbook’ was being originally written was a golden age of songwriting, if maybe not of performing. I love those songs, partly because I love jazz, and to my mind jazz musicians of the 40s and 50s brought out some of the resources of those songs in ways that the earliest performances of those songs maybe didn’t. (OK, Judy Garland’s rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ is stunning, but so is Bud Powell’s.) I do think, though, that in terms of both British and American popular music, the very early 60s were a fallow time. Sinatra’s great creative renaissance of the 50s was ebbing, and nothing much had come along to replace it. I’ve had some amusing bust-ups with older music fans who grew up with the Beatles in a way that I didn’t — I was born after the Beatles broke up — and who still regard Sinatra, Tony Bennett etc. as old farts who were blown away by the music of the 60s, whereas I revere Sinatra and Bennett, because I’m not old enough to have been bored by them.

    I only ended up doing that one playlist of the week that ‘Love Me Do’ came out, because when I researched the state of the charts the week ‘Please Please Me’ came out, it was clear that the 60s beat music boom was already under way. Later research showed the extent to which the Beatles opened the floodgates.

  4. G.H.Bone says:

    Oh please don’t get me wrong. I didn’t for a moment think that you were “down” on pre-Beatles music. Your commentary on that particular hit-parade, and posts elsewhere on your blog clearly show this not to be the case. I only chimed in because I was intrigued by your project of placing the Beatles in their hit-parade context and thought that it would be fun to be part of the conversation and tease out a few things. There were clearly things going on musically at the time were of value (more than I would have expected) even though – in line with your premise – popular music seemed to be ready for a shot in the arm. But you also quite clearly acknowledge that there is music to value there too. I didn’t miss that, and if my comments suggested otherwise, then I failed to make myself clear.

    I came across your blog because some years ago I chanced upon the essay about the Beatles by Piero Scaruffi. Since then, it has been in the back of my mind to respond in detail to that essay as a good way of making clear, in my own mind, what I think about the Beatles. I revised the idea a few weeks ago (since I haven’t added to my blog for such a long time, I thought it might be a spicy way to get re-started) but on re-reading Scaruffi’s essay I lost heart for the project. I couldn’t quite see the point in engaging with such thoroughgoing dimwittery. Then I realised that it was unlikely that I was the only person ever to have the idea, and a little googling led me to your post. I enjoyed your response to him very much and, looked further through you blog and that’s why I followed you.

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