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notes on ...

Notes on "It Won't Be Long"


Notes on ... Series #10.0 (IWBL.0)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
        CD: "With The Beatles", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46436-2)
  Recorded: 30th July 1963, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1963 (LP "With The Beatles")
US-release: 20th January 1964 (LP "Meet The Beatles")
  Next note "It Won't Be Long" is a raving album opener rich in detail, and elliptical in form. The song is built out of three distinct, two-line phrases, each of which reappears at least once. What's particularly interesting is that the normal, easy-to-recognize distinction between verse, break and refrain is rather blurred here by both the repeat pattern as well as the particular content of each phrase. Let's actually first look at the three different phrases close up (all the better to observe the details) and we'll come back to the question of the overall form at the end.

Phrase X - "It won't be long yeah ..."

  Next note This phrase is eight measures long, has unvarying lyrics, repeats the largest number of times (four), and it has that look and feel of an intro and refrain. Musically, it is distinguished by the following details:
  • The use of the vi chord as a pseudo dominant, almost a signature device of the Beatles in this period; look at the very next song on this album ("All I've Got To Do") and note how they use the same chord progression (not to mention the same key).
  • The special chord in the second half of measure 6, which I have a great deal of trouble diagnosing for certain from the recording — advice from someone with either a score or better ears would be appreciated. What I think I hear is a diminished chord sitting between the IV and the I chord; i.e. A# - C# - E - F-double-sharp. However it's possibly only an A7 chord; i.e. we get the F-double-sharp, but the bass holds on to A-natural. In either case, this spicy chord is created by chromatic motion of at least one inner voice. I prefer not to assign a roman numeral to it, rather to describe it as a chord which bridges the two chords on either side of it, incidentally created by the chromatic melodic motion. It's worth noting how this chord marks the solitary moment in this phrase where the harmonic rhythm quickens.
  • The "Day Tripper"-like guitar riff used in measures 7 and 8. This figure reappears in phrase Y and helps unify the song overall. Savor that bent F-double-sharp -» G#, but also contemplate the skill of the player in getting it consistent in each repeat; unless of course, it was recorded once as an "edit piece" and then overdubbed like a macro each time.
  • The antiphonal "yeah, yeah" vocals, difficult to perform but fun to listen to even in mono. These vocals are given a gentle syncopated feel by the fact that John's voice, which is mixed forward from the others, sings his "yeah's" on the off-beat.
  Next note The phrase looks like this harmonically:
      |c#        |-         |E         |-         |
   E:  vi                    I

      |c#        |A   A#dim |E         |-         |
       vi         IV         I

   [Figure 10.1]

Phrase Y - "Every night / day ... has fun / my eyes / happy I know ..."

  Next note This phrase repeats three times and is the only phrase which has consistently varied lyrics, making it the most verse-like of the three. Musically, it is distinguished by the following:
  • It's an unusual seven measures long. Actually I've always heard the fourth measure in a dual, pivot role; initially hearing it as the last measure of a four-measure sub-phrase, but by the time we get to measure 5, I realize that it's actually the first measure of the second sub-phrase. The Boys liked this gimmick, using it in "Any Time At All" and probably elsewhere.
  • The use of the C-Major chord in the key of E is something we haven't seen yet in these articles: the VI chord borrowed from the parallel minor key, sometimes referred to as the "flat-VI" since it's root is a half-tone lower than what it would be for the vi chord which naturally appears in the Major key. I'm tempted to dub it the "Buddy Holly" chord; think of the break in "Peggy Sue".
  • And of course, there's the carryover of the guitar riff from phrase X.
  Next note The phrase looks like this harmonically:
      |E         |C         |E         |
   E:  I          flat-VI    I

      |E         |C         |E         |-         |
       I          flat-VI    I

   [Figure 10.2]

Phrase Z - "Since you left me I'm so alone ..."

  Next note This phrase is reverts to the square, eight-bar length, is repeated only twice, and it too has several musically distinguishing details:
  • The descending, chromatic bassline. This is another device used by the Boys all over the map; "It's Only Love" and "Dear Prudence" are two widely spaced examples that come to mind.
  • The manner in which the descending bassline is harmonized. Try to hear the middle voice which descends in parallel with bass at the interval of a third as well as the upper voice which focuses on the same note, B, throughout the phrase. This winds up creating an unusual augmented chord in measure 2 and a minor chord in measure 3 to which I wouldn't assign roman numerals. As with the special chord in phrase X, I'd describe the harmony here as being essentially a move from E (I) to C# (V-of-II) in which the two intervening chords are incidental structures created by the melodic motion which connects the first and last chords.
  • The manner in which the harmonization of the bassline is vocally arranged; in the raving context of the rest of the song, the subdued, falsetto backing provides an effective, contrasting moment of relief.
  • One other source of relief here is the fact that, in contrast with X and Y which are both rather heavily bound to the I chord, this Z phrase has an harmonically open shape, ending on the V.
  Next note The phrase looks like this harmonically:
   Chords: |E         |B-aug     |b         |C#7       |
 Bassline:  E          D#         D-nat      C#
 Analysis:  I                                V-of-II

   Chords: |A         |B         |F#        |B         |
 Analysis:  IV         V          V-of-V     V

   [Figure 10.3]

Putting It All Together

  Next note At the level of phrases X, Y, and Z, it's easy enough to map out the block structure:
   X   Y   X   Z   Y   X   Z   Y   X
  The difficulty comes in trying to cluster these phrases into the sort of verse-break-refrain divisions you come to expect in this genre. Some of the following questions and options come to mind:
  • Is Z a break? Or perhaps, (ignoring the first, Y-only verse) is it joined to Y as the first half of a compound (ZY) verse unit? Under this last option, X does indeed fit the role of refrain.
  • Is X a refrain? Or perhaps, (ignoring its first appearance as an intro) is it joined to Y as the second half of a compound (YX) verse unit? Under this last option, Z does indeed fit the role of break.
  • Or perhaps, there are no compound verse units, and the structure is meant to be parsed by us at the level already diagrammed above. Under this last option, Y (with it's ever changing lyrics) is the natural choice for verse, and I'd feel compelled to say that the rest of the form is a highly unusual hybrid in that we have both a refrain (X) and a break (Z).
  Next note Which one do you think it is? In all honesty, and with no tongue-in-cheek smilies implied, I can't tell for sure.
  Alan (090189#10.0)
Copyright © 1989 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.