Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Five Unusual Songwriting Tricks from The Beatles

[Originally published on Sharon Goldman's Songwriting Scene blog 17 Nov 2010].

The Beatles were songwriting Ninjas, but they employed many tricks that anyone can add to their songwriting tool box. Here are five less obvious examples:

1. Mutate Your Chorus

As well as starting songs with the chorus, some of The Beatles greatest hits open with a chorus hybrid that previews the title and hooks.

The intro to Help has the same chord progression as the chorus but moves twice as fast and features the title 4 times (to the chorus's 3). Use this trick and by the time you reach your chorus the listener will be hooked by the reassuring feeling that they've heard your song somewhere before.

Also used on: She Loves YouCan't Buy Me Love

[Read more]

2. Bluesify Your Melody

We expect to hear blue notes like the b3rd, b5th and b7th in rockers like Back In The USSR but the Beatles often added these notes into more melodic material too.

In Blackbird the final phrase uses the b7th on inTO the LIGHT and the b3rd on dark BLACK night. This trick will add a soulful edge to your melodies but it's hard to pull off unless you're a confident singer. Inserting the blue note into your chord until you've can pitch it correctly is a smart move.

Also used on: Ticket To Ride, From Me To You.

[Read more]

3. Delay The Root Chord

Starting a song on the tonic chord is a rut the Beatles managed to avoid a surprising number of times.

Eleanor Rigby starts on C major (the bVI of Em) before heading to the home chord. It's one of the things that gives the track such a sense of tension. Using this trick will give your progressions more forward momentum.

Also used on: All My LovingHello Goodbye.

[Read more]

4. Utilise The Outside Chord

Many of us employ out of key chords (whether we realise it or not!). But out of 186 original Beatles compositions only 16 stay in key!

In Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon pulls the rug from under the Bb major tonality by replacing the F major chord with an F minor.

Bb Let me take you down cos I'm going Fm to

Its like the stomach drop you experience on the crest of a rollercoaster. Later he creates a disorientating momentary high by replacing the Gm with a G major.

Eb Nothing to get G hung about

Outside chords will surprise your listeners and freshen your melodies.

Also used on: I Am The Walrus, Fool On The Hill. 

[Read more]

5. Restate Your Lyrics

The Beatles didn't make their lyrics memorable just by repeating sections wholesale. They also repeated and adapted words, phrases and sentence structures.

Take A Day In The Life. 4 verses, a middle 8 and only one repeated line. And yet it's memorable (in part) because of lyrical links like these -

I - read the news/saw a film - today, oh boy
and though the - news was/holes were - rather - sad/small
found my - way downstairs/coat/way upstairs
I just had to - laugh/look

Using this subtle trick will make your lyrics sticky and give a sense of unity to a track.

Also used onFixing A HoleThe Long And Winding Road. 

[Read more]

Like these? Here's 70 more Songwriting Tips From The Beatles!

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Friday, 30 June 2017

10:58 Cry Baby Cry (pt.2) - Nursery Rhymes

Lennon dismissed Cry Baby Cry as "a piece of rubbish" not only due to the traumatic circumstances it was recorded in but also in he had a tenancy to get bored with anything he'd worked on in the past and grew, under the influence of Yoko and various therapies, to despise anything that wasn't 'real' and autobiographical. This made a meaningless, fictional flight of fancy like Cry Baby Cry an obvious target for the the later Lennon to take a shot at.

Though there's a dreamlike sense of Lewis Carroll hovering over the song, the initial inspiration for the hook came from an advertisement (as did Mr Kite and Good Morning Good Morning)* But the most obvious influence is a nursery rhyme

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king? 
The king was in his counting house counting out his money
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose

It's interesting to see Lennon return to the same source again in 1980. Clean Up Time has the stanza

The Queen is in the counting house
Counting out the money
The King is in the kitchen
Making bread and honey

Here Lennon is infusing old imagery with new meaning. During the 70s Yoko took over the business affairs and John became a house husband. This clever repurposing allows John to be 'real', autobiographical and use borrowed sources all at the same time by changing only a few words.

However that doesn't take away from Cry Baby Cry. It's still a brilliantly constructed fantasy song. The sustained fairy tale imagery and portrait of mundane domesticity is built on the Beatles (and nursery rhyme's) use of parallel lyrics (Ticket 24). Consider the recurring pattern of 'character - location – activity' in the verses**


The King/Queen/Duke/Duchess/Children(and the nursery rhyme's Maid)


was in the kitchen/parlour/garden/playroom


cooking breakfast/playing piano/picking flowers/painting pictures (note all these phrases have four syllables)

Another interesting structural technique is bookending the lyrics on the chorus which Lennon also did in Sexy Sadie

Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry

Sexy Sadie what have you done?
You made a fool of everyone
You made a fool of everyone
Sexy Sadie, oh, what have you done?

The origin of the Duchess causes a lot of confusion online. She's from Kirkcaldy, a town on the east coast of Scotland, 11 miles north of Edinburgh.

But as for what The Bird And Bee is, it's unclear. Many say it's a plausible name for a Pub, but the fact that the Duke is 'having trouble with a message' always conjured up the image of him preparing a talk for a group like the Women's Institute.

But what do I know? And did Lennon know? Probably not. Perhaps that very McCartney style vagueness was another reason Lennon disowned this tune.

Next time we'll finish with a look at the music and arrangement.

*The proverbial phrase “old enough to know better” dates back at least to Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) “My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don't know anything at all”.

**Another parallel is the meals – breakfast/tea (The king cooking breakfast / the duchess arriving for tea)

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Friday, 23 June 2017

10:57 Cry Baby Cry (pt.1) The Song No One Wanted

Cry Baby Cry occupies a unique position in the Beatles catalogue. There are many songs where Lennon and McCartney both claim to have contributed the majority of a song, but here we have a song that neither Lennon nor McCartney wanted any credit for. The acrimonious atmosphere it was recorded in caused long time engineer Geoff Emerick to quit, telling George Martin "I want to leave now, this very minute." Yet the band seemed to work conscientiously on it, knocking it out in a couple of days.

Cry Baby Cry was another of John's songs from India … Because John had divorced Cynthia and gone off with Yoko, It meant that I'd hear some of the songs for the first time when he came to the studio, whereas in the past we checked them with each other.
Paul: Many Years From Now (p.487)

Paul gives John sole credit, denying involvement or even prior knowledge! But when asked by Playboy for his thought on the song Lennon simply replied

Not me. A piece of rubbish
John: All We Are Saying (p.200)

Paul's statement is self contradictory. If it was a Rishikesh song then Paul must have heard it. And he certainly heard it again when they gathered to demo songs at George's house Kinfauns. Why was he so keen to distance himself from this one when he admitted he liked it?

And why did John, the Beatle most likely to get bored and lose focus, put so much work into “a piece of rubbish”, reaching McCartney levels of multi tracking, playing acoustic guitar and then overdubbing organ, piano and lead and backing vocals?

A day rehearsing and a day plus change recording is reasonable going for late-era Beatles. It's doesn't seem like the kind of work-rate that would leave lots of time for bitter feuds. And nailing the basic track in ten takes doesn't seem like the kind of problem piece that would cause bad feeling. It's a far cry from scrapping and rerecording the entire thing as they did with other songs on this album. So what made Geoff quit on this of all days?

Untangling The Mystery

Sometimes when a relationship breaks down, the 'straw that breaks the camels back' is something innocuous. A casual observer might be nonplussed as to what the problem is. It's only when you dig around that you understand.

What preceded the unfairly maligned Cry Baby Cry?
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Revolution.

The song that Paul was pushing to be the next single vs the song John was pushing to be the next single. Or if you prefer, the song that John (and George) "openly and vocally detested" vs the song that Paul and George thought was too politically 'on the nose' to be the next single. Or the song that Paul had made his bandmate slog through three recorded versions vs the song Paul and George had (rather unwittingly) goaded John into completely rerecording.

The Beatles 'every member has a veto' policy had them deadlocked. Where they used to earmark a song as a single before it had even been written now they were at a standstill. In fact, worse than a standstill, they were forcing themselves to go back and rerecord songs like some kind of tie-breaker. In the end neither John nor Paul got what they wanted. Paul gave up on Ob-La-Di* and offered Hey Jude in it's place and Revolution was relegated to the B side.

So it's my hunch that the bad feeling at the session and the eagerness to disassociate themselves with Cry Baby Cry was actually based on all the crap that has gone on before.

Does this have anything to say to us lesser mortals trying to write better songs?

Recovering From A Difficult Birth

Songwriters and recording artists can find it impossible to be objective about their own work. For an artist, the song is almost inseparable from the circumstances of it's creation. John said “I can't stand hearing them all the time! Because I have to relive the sessions. It's not like I hate Beatles music. It's like reading an old diary [or going] through your old snapshots”**

A song that flowed out in a single sitting or a track that was a first take is always going to have a warm glow about it. Compare that to a song that was slaved over, rewritten, rerecorded, remixed endlessly. I experienced this with my song I Got Lost. When I heard positive comments from first time listeners I was surprised. I had regarded the song as difficult and inaccessible. Why? I struggled to get the vocal track down, recording it over three separate sessions. The dread of revisiting the vocal booth had coloured my perception of the song.

When the audience hears our song they only hear the song. But a songwriter can hear 'two' songs. The song as they originally conceived of it and the reality. The intention verse the execution. This is an insidious pastime to indulge in because the imaginary song is often perfect whereas the reality can fall drastically short.

So once you have created your song, open it out to the world. During the creation process yours is the only opinion that truly matters so 'keep the door shut'. But once you've finished, or more accurately, 'released' your song your opinion of it is only one among many and no more valid than anyone else's. Listen to others and be willing to be wrong.

Cry Baby Cry isn't deep and meaningful, but it is a great song. It's the result of simply Lennon's imagination taking a stroll in the Wonderland of his youth. It's a well crafted in performance arrangement and composition. That's what I'd tell John and Paul.

Recommended Post: How To Catch A Song Without Killing It
and Three Hammer Prevention Questions

*Paul's nose for a number one was vindicated when Marmalade topped the charts with a faithful cover of the track in 1969.
**All We Are Saying (p.148)

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Friday, 5 May 2017

What Goes Online (May 2017) - Everywhere Is Somewhere

Lennon: Penny Lane – the bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just re-living childhood.
Rolling Stone: You really had a place where you grew up.

Lennon: Oh, yeah. Didn't you?
Rolling Stone: Well, Manhattan isn't Liverpool.

Lennon: Well, you could write about your local bus station.
Rolling Stone: In Manhattan?

Lennon: Sure, why not? Everywhere is somewhere.
John Lennon 1968 Rolling Stone interview


I've been enjoy a diverse bunch of Beatles audio recently

First and foremost the Fabcast guys talking to Mark Lewisohn about McCartney's collaboration with Elvis Costello was riveting. The style is a little strident in places, (think Howard Stern), but if you can get past those opinionated patches it's full of interesting stuff.

Beatles Anthology Revisited is like a greatly expanded audio version of the TV show. Apparently the whole thing runs to 28 hours - I'm still working through the Revolver episode. The downloads are hidden about halfway down this page and here's a Pitchfork article about the project.
(Thanks to John Morgan for the recommendation).

My search for outtakes and stems has turned up the now defunct Dave McPhillip's Podcast which you can still download from his podomatic page and reverb-drenched producer Anthony Robustelli has The Beatles Multi-track Meltdown a kind of radio show of board mixes and other oddities. Anthony also features artists like Steely Dan and David Bowie from time to time.


I was fortunate to get my hands on a pre-release copy of Aaron Krerowicz's Beatlestudy Vol. 2 – a massive conCHORDdance – covering every single chord change in every single song in a myriad of ways. It's a mind-bending work of scholarship and it's out now. There's also a sister book on structures that looks just as crazily detailed. Info  - Buy in US  - Buy in UK.


The White Album Project looks like an interesting place to hang out. And Every Sound There Is - 'Guitar Stuff For Beatles Fans'? I'm in!


Aaron Krerowicz has a interesting article about harmony and Gary Ewer writes about making downward key changes (like Penny Lane) work

From Matt

I co-wrote a bizarre kid's song called A Little Spillage with the aptly named New Zealand lyricist Stephen Wordsmith which you can hear here and reposted the interview I did with the Creative Gibberish site here.


Dan Amrich and Jude Kelley aka Palette-Swap Ninja have done something fairly extraordinary. Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans is basically the complete story of Star Wars Episode IV sung to the tune of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I don't mean the song, I mean the WHOLE ALBUM – in order. Kind of like watching Wizard Of Oz while listening to Dark Side Of The Moon except it makes complete sense even if you aren't stoned. Dan says “We’ve released song parodies before, but nothing this ambitious. Once we settled on merging A New Hope with Sgt. Pepper’s, we completely committed ourselves to turning these two sacred cows into the ultimate double cheeseburger.”

Watch the whole thing here or download the album here

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Friday, 28 April 2017

10:56 Helter Skelter (pt.2): Eleanor Rigby On A Bridge From Nowhere

Lennon Or McCartney?

We saw last time that the initial inspiration for this track was a review of I Can See For Miles by The Who. But in terms of influence this track arguably reveals Paul biggest influence – John Winston Lennon. Some of the most recognisable Lennon-isms are vertical melodies (check out the monotonal opening melody – one note reused for 2 bars) and minimal, almost mantra-like, lyrics.

Helter Skelter has just 61 unique words.

Most remarkable is the two word chorus. Though John embraced such brevity in Girl, All You Need Is Love and others it's almost unprecedented for Paul. There's not much between Love Me Do (three word title; thirteen word refrain*) or Get Back (a two word title; seven word chorus) that even comes close.

Paul's flirt with minimalism extends to the music too. We don't get all seven notes (Ticket 40) or all three diatonic major chords (Ticket 7) - the V chord is absent, which is unusual for a blues influenced song**.


Eleanor Rigby, Sits On The Ride In The Fair...

Starting the song with the most interesting section (harmonically speaking) is a smart move (Ticket 61). Paul plays the same kind of progression employed in the bridge of Eleanor Rigby, a chromatic line descending from the b7th (Ticket 31). But whereas Eleanor's string quartet is musically rich, here Paul distills the idea down to the top 2 strings of the electric guitar. The line (D - Db - C - B) has no fifth or third to harmonise with***. So, though you could look at it as a brother to Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby: Em7 Em6 C/E Em
Helter Skelter:  Em7 Em6 C/E G

those harmonies are only implied. Helter Skelter could just as easily be

E7 E6 C/E G.

The other instruments don't help because NO ONE is adding the 3rd or the 5th to the first two chords.

It's also interesting to ask what this opening section actually is. Do we have an introductory jazz-style verse (Ticket 53) or is it a bridge? Perhaps it's some kind of secondary 'sub-chorus' – functioning like a chorus but less catchy? Each answer is plausible.

Lyrically it does introduce the 'subject', or more accurately the main image, like a verse. But the section is repeated verbatim later. Now, it's not unheard of for arrangers to move a 'jazz verse' to the middle of a song, but it's rare to have it in both positions in the same recording.

Musically it functions well enough as a bridge, the harmonic complexity contrasting nice with the gonzo blues riffing of the rest of the song. But it's almost unheard of to start a song with the bridge as the very purpose of a bridge is to give the listener a break from the material they've already heard. Starting a song with a bridge is like starting a play with the intermission.

The section zeroes in on the lyrical theme like a chorus but doesn't 'feel' catchy like a chorus should and is certainly 'out-chorused' by the strong riffing in the real chorus.

If it's hard to make a judgement call on the finished product at least the earlier Anthology 3 version**** gives us a clue as to how Paul got there. At this stage the 'real' chorus appears almost as an ad-libbed afterthought and it's pretty clear that the opening section is supposed to be the chorus. At some point McCartney obviously decided the ad-libbed bridge was more hooky than the chorus and switched roles but the 'old chorus' retained it's place at the top of the song.

I think this is fascinating for two reasons. Completing the song through jamming seems to have enabled Paul to switch off his inner critic and create a chorus that is simpler than a more focused writing session might have produced. And secondly the unusual position of the 'bridge' at the start of the song survives as a vestigial part of an earlier version.

The Verse Cut Is The Deepest

This is probably the only song I've encountered that has Lennon Edits (Ticket 37) and Lennon Extensions (Ticket 52) in the same section. Verses 2 and 3 are 7 bars long. Both of them slam straight into the chorus where you might expect a second bar of the E chord.

Verse 1 adds in an extra bar of E, but earlier in the progression, delaying the change to G major (0:29), which none of the others do. The genesis of this idea is, again, uncovered by the Anthology 3 version where the change to G is sloppy and unclear and the band are obviously following McCartney's lead. At some point the changes got nailed down as they often did with Lennon's songs (see Happiness Is A Warm Gun).

Coming Down Fast

The chorus has a classic Beatles instrumental hook (Ticket 3) that works on several levels. Over an A chord they play a descending A mixolydian mode scale run, then when the chord switches to E they play a descending E mixolydian scale. Simple, right? Yes and no.

First, the Mixolydian mode (Ticket 51) is a interesting choice, fresher and less obvious than the pentatonic scale and descending to the root from the b7th (G F# E D C# B A) is less obvious than starting from the octave (A G F# E D C# B A).

But why go down at all? Why not up? Or up and down?

Because you go down on a Helter Skelter. And you go round and round as you go down. This is brilliantly represented by constantly switching between A and E. And why use 16th notes? Because Paul warned us he was “coming down fast” and the riff represents that literally.

Was this use of madrigalism deliberate? I doubt it. But a good songwriter will always search for what 'feels' right and it always feels right when the music supports the lyrics.

*You could argue (quite successfully) that Love Me Do has an AABA structure and that section is the verse, but as they repeat the same lyrics for every verse it functions somewhat like a primitive chorus.

**Get Back pulls the same trick

*** A similarly minimalist approach to the descending b7th chromatic line can be found in the horn part of Over You by Aaron Neville (0:05).

****Take 2, recorded 18 July. 

Thanks to Ciro Urso on the BSA Forum for help with research.
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Friday, 21 April 2017

10:55 Helter Skelter (pt.1) The Recording

The Who had made some track [I Can See For Miles] that was the loudest, the most raucous rock 'n roll, the dirtiest thing they'd ever done. It made me think, 'Right. Got to do it.' I like that kind of geeking up. And we decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could

Paul McCartney: Musician Magazine 1985

We tried everything we could to dirty it up

Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

Helter Skelter is a great little song that doesn't quite live up to it's premise as a recording and is arguably twice as long as it needs to be.


I've never listened to it properly, it was just a noise

John Lennon: Rolling Stone, 1970

Competition with Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan and most of all each other, often brought out the best in The Beatles but The Who was a band too far. Ian MacDonald calls the track “clumsy”, “ridiculous” and “a drunken mess” with “McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing." Although Paul had been screaming like Little Richard since he was a small boy here he doesn't seem to have the vocal chops to pull it off and more worryingly, neither do the production team. Chris Thomas, filling in for the holidaying George Martin, and engineer Ken Scott, replacing Geoff Emerick (who quit two months earlier) provide a palate dominated by clanky bass (played by Lennon), weak drums, drowned by cymbals and a second guitar that is just fizzy, white noise.

The track is often lauded as a proto-heavy metal track and given a free pass sonically - 'overlook the crappy sound like you'd excuse your granddad's poor hygiene' but, like your grandpa, that just won't wash. By Sept 1968 Hendrix had already released Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love and was just about to drop Electric Ladyland, so in the nasty sweaty stakes, the Beatles were playing catchup. Listen to Jimmy Page's production of Whole Lotta Love recorded just 8 months later. Cleaner and heavier. In fact it is a truth universally acknowledge that less distortion, not more, is the way to make tracks (especially guitar) sound heavier.

McCartney's hysterical delivery, all maniacal giggling (0:15) and excess saliva (“shee you again” 0:11, 1:45), reeks of overcompensating and the backing vocals are counterproductive – the 'oohs and aahs' - more 'soft perm' than hard rock - actually lighten the track. But the lead guitar is where the Beatles are lacking heft. John, Paul and George have their shining moments elsewhere but none were able match the sheer bombast that Page, Clapton, and Beck could produce.


The fact that the mono version fades out a minute earlier without detriment to the song (other than losing Ringo's “blisters on my fingers” line) reveals how bloated the stereo version is. We get 3 verses, 3 choruses, 2 bridges and a guitar solo all packed into 2:30. What more do we need? Well, apparently 2 full minutes of vamping on the tonic chord. This breaks down as follows

2:57 false ending
3:09 song restarts
3:36 fade out
3:45 fade in
4:10 fade out
4:20 fade in
4:30 track ends

False endings (Ticket 47) can be cool (check out We Were Born To Be Loved by King's X - 2:55 onwards - for a masterclass) but here it's overdone and undermined by the banal jamming of a band clearly having more fun than we are.

The track could have ended around 3:04 (where McCartney is speaking in a Yorkshire accent*, audible on the stereo version) but I suspect the reluctance to fade quickly comes from a desire to the showcase the 'avant garde a clue' playing of Lennon on Tenor Sax and roadie Mal Evans on trumpet. But, on an album featuring Revolution 9, the atonal jamming is surplus to requirements.

Next time we'll take a more positive look at the songwriting itself.

Thanks to Ciro Urso on the BSA ForumThe White Album Project and Beatles Bible for help with research.

*McCartney says “Hey! Come here son. I saw you do that you little bugger! Put yer bloody hands on here. Come on”

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