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notes on ...

Notes on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"

 





Notes on ... Series #78 (NW)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: E Major
     Meter: 3/4 (6/8)
      Form: Verse (instrumental intro) | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Verse (instrumental solo) | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Rubber Soul", Track 2 (Parlophone CDP7 46440-2)
  Recorded: 12th, 21st October 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 3rd December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")
US-release: 6th December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")
 
1

General Points of Interest

 

Style and Form

  Next note This understated and characteristically oblique song of John's is also admirably economical in terms of both form and content, with everything but the bridges being derived from the same hook motif. In lesser hands, the large amount of unvaried repetition and static harmony of this piece might have resulted in a moribund, boring mess. The Beatles leverage it all in favor of and unity and focus.
  Next note It is also another one of the very few Beatles' songs in a ternary meter; this time, most lilting and very un-waltz-like.
  Next note The much commented-upon use of a sitar was surely ground breaking enough at the time per se. What I am particularly struck by, given the novelty-numbing distance of time, is the extent to which the psychedelic buzzing of that exotic instrument is so uncannily complemented here by the high level of percussive noise achieved by using a hard pick on the otherwise standard twelve-string guitar.
 

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The extent to which they must have known in their souls that they had an especially fine hook going for them in this song is likely borne out by the way in which it is used repeatedly throughout to almost hypnotic effect.
  Next note This so-called hook would, indeed, make a for a lovely and sophisticated textbook example of one of the archetypal melodic paradigms; i.e. the prevailing downward spiral, as distinct from the arch (do pardon the clunky analogue used here in place of a true music staff):
 
   |     |C#     |       |       |       |       |       |       |
   |B    |   B   |       |       |       |       |       |       |
   |     |     A |       |   A   |       |   A   |       |       |
   |     |       |G#     |     G#|       |       |       |       |
   |     |       |       |F#     |       |       |       |       |
   |     |       |       |       |E      |       |       |       |
   |     |       |       |       |       |D      |       |       |
   |     |       |       |       |       |     C#|       |       |
   |     |       |       |       |       |       |B      |-      |

   [Figure 78.1]
  Next note The melodic contour of the above essentially lays out an octave descent with a mix of linear and disjunct motion. The initially simple gesture of a downward scale that turns around its upper neighbor tone is further developed twice-over by a pattern in which the overall downward progression is marked by a two-jumps-down/one-jump-up kind of subfigure in which the jumps are increasingly wider. The modal use of the melodic flat seventh (D-natural) adds some additional spice.
  Next note The hook phrase stretches out leisurely over eight measures that are bound to an harmonic "envelope" on the I chord (E). We could likely argue all night about whether or not one hears equally implicit chord changes during this hook, but we've got better things to do all night than that, right, buddy? In any event, this drone-like element in the harmony combines with the sound of the Indian sitar to create a stylistic "sound" which, if you stop to think about it, anticipates here in "a John song" what would soon become very much a specifically Harrisonian trademark.
  Next note The bridge strays briefly into the parallel minor (shades of "I'll Be Back" and other earlier Beatles' tunes) and provides some welcome harmonic movement, but interestingly, the melodic gesture of those otherwise contrasting sections still remains prevailingly downward.
 

Arrangement

  Next note The instrumental backing is acoustic in flavor, and, quite typically for the Beatles, is worked out to a finer level of detail than at first meets the eye or ear. Examples of this are the staggered opening; the way in which melodic-versus-rhythmic interest is traded back and forth between guitar and sitar even to the point where they double each other in several places; a tamboura-like buzzing drone sound from the sitar that kicks in during the verse following the first bridge; and the clinking of finger cymbals which starts in the second bridge and follows through the final verse and the coda.
  Next note John sings the wry lead vocal fully exposed in single track with Paul taking the top part for the bridges, which although it is actually the melodic line of that section, is ironically mixed back.
2

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

 

Intro

  Next note The intro is sixteen measures long and consists of a verse-like two-fold presentation of the hook phrase; the first, for solo acoustic guitar followed by the entrance of the sitar (which then carries the melody) and bass guitar.
 

Verse

  Next note All the verses follow the pattern set up in the intro with John carrying the tune, the guitar stepping back into a role of rhythmic support, and the sitar occasionally providing a mockingbird reprise of the hook's ending as a rejoinder (e.g. the first verse and the first half of the final verse).
 

Bridge

  Next note The bridge is also sixteen measures long and though we finally feel the release of some harmonic movement, the slowness of the harmonic rhythm helps maintain the measured mood established earlier:
 
   |e      |-      |-      |-      |A      |-      |-      |-      |
    i                               IV

   |e      |-      |-      |-      |f#     |-      |B      |-      |
    i                               ii              V

   [Figure 78.2]
  Next note The use of the Major IV chord in context of a minor key lends an antique, modal touch that resonates with the melodic flat seventh used in the verse hook. In context of the Beatles we're much more used to seeing the reverse trick of the minor iv chord in a Major key. In fact, the only other time we have seen this "Major IV in a minor key" gambit used in a Beatles' song was way back in George's "Don't Bother Me".
 

Outro

  Next note The outro provides one repeat of the hook. Two repeats would have been more consistent with the established pattern of the rest of the song, but specifically breaking the rule at this point is what good art and composition are all about (in my humble opinion).
3

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The preliminary though fully worked-out take 1 version of this song has been widely available on Beatlegs ever since "Ultra Rare Trax", Volume 3, appeared on vinyl. It makes for a number of provoking comparisons with the official version (mixed down from take 4):
 
  • Take 1 was apparently performed in the lower key of D, though in light of the recent debate in this newsgroup regarding the speed of the Decca tapes, I'll have to grant that this observation may be an artifact of an off-speed bootleg copy. Still, I think John sounds vocally out of breath on the low notes in this outtake, hence the motivation for transposing the song upward.
  • The arrangement of take 1 is not only different per se from the official version, but is in many respects more fussily detailed than it, perhaps too much so:
  • The tempo may be close in speed but the whole feel of the beat is more lumberingly deliberate, even a bit mechanical.
  • The solo section in the middle contains only one iteration of the hook phrase.
  • John double tracks the end of every phrase in every verse.
  • The phrases "biding my time" / "drinking her wine" are reversed.
  • The sitar playing is rather clunky sounding but it holds all the instrumentally melodic interest, relegating the guitar to a role of entirely rhythmic support.
  • The sitar provides a mockingbird rejoinder in the bridges instead of the verses, and it also throws in a corny "that's all folks" little riff at the very end.
  • Finger cymbals are used throughout, with maracas and a tambourine added for the bridge.
  Next note Lewisohn seems to judge the official remake as the "heavier" of the two treatments, but I'd be happy to argue him back the opposite way. While some of the differences in the later version (all of one week on the calendar!) may be explained by their simply having the song that much better under their fingers, I dare say the more substantive changes may be traceable to a better-judgment consideration of the aesthetic principle that "less (not to mention a lighter, faster touch) is more."
  Regards,
  Alan (031893#78)
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Copyright © 1993 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.