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notes on ...

Notes on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

 





Notes on ... Series #25.0 (WMGGW.0)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: a minor (with excursions toward C Major,
            A Major and c# minor)
     Meter: 4/4
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 7 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 25th July, 16th August,
            3rd, 5th-6th September 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")
 
  Next note Two very different versions exist of this song. One, the official release on the "White Album", is loud, heavy, wailing, and arranged in successively recorded layers of sound. The other version, take 1, is a rather popular track in Beatleg circles, and much the opposite in tone; introspectively quiet and quite simply arranged, essentially for solo voice and acoustic guitar.
  Next note And yet, one might say that the expressive core of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is to be found more deeply embedded in the musical elements which are in common between the two versions [**] than it is to be found among the details of their contrasting arrangements, no matter how interesting it may be to explore and compare their details.
  Next note Within the melody, chord progressions, and formal phrasing of the song we discover a thoroughly sad lament in which there is ironic tension on at least two levels; first, the contrast between the ploddingly slow tempo and continually restless progression of chords; second, the predominance of downward-moving gestures which conjure a mood of pessimism, despite the intermittent appearance of upward gestures which you would half-expect to lighten things up a bit.
  Next note While the emphasis in this article will be on the so-called common musical elements, we will also take a close look, along the way, at the instrumentation of both versions.
  [** In between these two extremes, by the way, was yet another arrangement which has not been released officially or otherwise. From Lewisohn's commentary it sounds rather similar to the official version would appear to have been scrapped as a matter of its having become overdeveloped with too many overdubs and manipulations of tape speed.]
 

Crying, Waiting, Hoping for a New Blue Moon

  Next note It may be fashionable sport these days to pick on the supposed Quiet One for being rather noisily complaining in his song lyrics, but it's a game with some basis in fact; whether the topic be lost love, the materialistic blindness of society, or even late-arriving friends, the Beatle George would always let us know his opinion of others.
  Next note Even so, there is an unmistakable shift toward happier songs from him, or at least ones with a more positive world outlook, starting from around the time of the "White Album". With the exception of "Only A Northern Song" and "I Me Mine", there is a clear trend, starting on the third side of "The Beatles" with "Long, Long, Long", that carries on through the remainder of the Beatles' canon with such upbeat tunes as "Old Brown Shoe", "Something", "Here Comes The Sun", and "For You Blue".
  Next note Amazingly, before the appearance of "Long, Long, Long", there was virtually nothing to George's songwriting credits that might be called cheery, optimistic, or fanciful. Even when the topic is one of transcendental enlightenment, as in "Within You Without You", the underlying tone is one of peroration rather than encouragement [**].
  Next note Seen in this light, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" sits on a cusp between two eras. It is more or less the last of a chain of songs similar in tone and attitude. Perhaps closest in spirit is "Think For Yourself", though the rancor of that earlier song from "Rubber Soul" which would appear to be personally directed at an individual is replaced here in the later song by sad regret that is more targeted more diffusely and ambiguously.
  [** The biographical and spiritual parallels to this musical transformation of George during the last phase of the tenure as a Beatle are fascinating but unfortunately also outside the scope of this already long article.]
 

Form

  Next note The form of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is deceptively familiar yet, what the double verse we've come to expect at the beginning of Beatles' songs, is conspicuous here by virtue of its absence:
 
   Intro | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Verse (solo)
         | Bridge | Verse | Outro
  This move is likely warranted by the slow tempo, the unusual length of the intro and outro, and the internal structure of the verse section itself, as we'll see shortly when we pull it apart below. Also unusual is the use of different lyrics in each of the two bridge sections instead of the more common verbatim repeat.
  Next note There are a couple of differences between the official version and the outtake worth noting at the macro level. The outtake features all new words in the final verse whereas the official version presents a clever variation of the first verse in this spot. Also, the outtake is in the key of G while the official version is in A. Both of these keys force George to sing the bridge section in a breathy, partly falsetto tenor, an effect which he must have liked very much because he chose to go with the higher of the two keys for the official version. In spite of any strain on his voice, it's actually an effect he's sought after throughout his career; songs running all the way from "Don't Bother Me" to "Heading For The Light" all keep him singing for long sections in a range that is several notes above middle C.
 

Harmony and Rhythm

  Next note "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is suggestive of a somber, languid processional, on the one hand, because of the slow harmonic rhythm and the moderate tempo; nowhere in the song do the chords change more frequently than once a measure, and in a number of places, the rate of change is even less frequent.
  On the other hand though, this static, plodding tendency is more than amply balanced by the way in which the chord progressions themselves always seem to be going somewhere, yet never truly find rest for long. From the home key of a minor there are excursions toward the relative Major key of C, the parallel Major key of A, and even the comparatively remote key of c# minor, yet none of these keys are strongly established, with the music always moving on ("like a bird that flew") almost as soon as it has arrived.
  Next note The paradoxical image evoked by the song is thus one of a slow yet restless, fretful pacing about.
 

Intro

  Next note The introduction is an unusually long one of eight measures in which the entire first half of the verse is presented instrumentally. This length sets an expansive tone for the song at the outset and the ending of this phrase on V nicely motivates the verse which follows. Note that the intro to the outtake, though also eight measures long, does not use the exact same chord progression; instead of ending on V, the VII chord of measure 6 is simply resolved to the i chord which fills both measures 7 and 8.
  Next note The arrangement of this introduction is attention grabbing, starting right off with the seemingly stray "hey up!", but also containing two details of greater substance, neither of which curiously lasts much beyond the intro itself. We have a simple yet effective précis of what will emerge as the melody of the verse played percussively on the piano, and syncopated cymbal slashes on the syncopated off-beat between "two" and "three", which sound as though recorded backward though they likely were just deftly damped by hand. Strangely, the piano never reappears with equivalent prominence in the remainder of the song, and the cymbal slashes continue, but only through the first eight measures of the first verse before the percussion switches over to a different texture for the rest of the song.
  Next note Of course Eric Clapton makes his own dramatic entrance in the measure 7 of this intro with an obbligato-like riff, the likes of which not only repeat leitmotif-like throughout the song, but the melodic style of which, heavy on arpeggio outlines, appoggiaturas, neighbor tones, and evenly played eighth notes, serves as the basis of his incredible solo in the middle section.
  Next note There are two other instrumental details which are employed throughout the song and become emblematic elements of its sonority: the very heavy bass which often sounds as though more than one string has been plucked, and the Wilbury-like use of a steely-sounding acoustic guitar in an otherwise exceedingly electric, hard-rock texture.
 

First Verse - "I look at you all ..."

  Next note All the verses in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" are a square sixteen measures built from four phrases of even length. Internally, the form of this verse is more precisely that of a double couplet; i.e. AB-AB':
 
   Chords: |a           |-           |-           |F           |
 Bassline:  A            G            F#           F-natural
        a:  i                                      VI

           |a           |G           |D           |E           |
            i            VII          IV           V

           |a           |-           |-           |F           |
            i                                      VI

           |a           |G           |C           |E           ||A
            i            V-of-III     III          V             I

   [Figure 25.1]
  Next note I believe it is this repeat-like structure within the verse itself is what discourages the use of two full verses in a row. In the case of the guitar solo verse, note by the way, how the structure of Clapton's solo blurs the distinct articulation of the double couplet.
  Next note The couplet structure is articulated by both words and music. Lyrically we have the pattern in every verse of an alternation between lines which begin with "while" and "still". Musically too, there's clear parallelism between the first and the third phrase and between the second and the fourth phrase.
  Next note The first and third phrases prominently feature a descending bassline whose downward gesture permeates the song by virtue of its constant repetition. This is nicely balanced out by the symmetrical arch shape of the vocal melody.
  The partially chromatic bassline moves against an a-minor chord which is sustained for three measures above it. From a guitar player's perspective, this makes for what look like different chords in every measure, but analytically it's all one harmonic "event" and the novel sonorities of measures 2 and 3 are byproducts of the contrapuntal motion of the bass. Similarly, the chord in measures 4 and 8 may appear on paper as though it's a d-minor chord which quickly changes to F-Major, but the more proper analysis is to call it F-Major with a melodic appoggiatura of D -» C on the downbeat; "proper" to the extent that the analysis matches one's experience of the music.
  Next note Both couplets in this verse are harmonically open ended with their ending on the V chord, yet there is a subtle difference created by the simple use of a different chord in the penultimate measure of each couplet (i.e. measures 7 and 15 respectively). In the first couplet, the approach to the E chord at the end by way of G and D chords is one of what you might describe as continual motion. In the second couplet, the resolution of the G chord to C (instead of D) creates an articulative break in the motion because the dominant-tonic relationship of the G and C chords creates a definite albeit short-lived sense of having arrived somewhere new.
  Next note But we're not yet finished with harmonic motion in this verse even though we're already at measure 15; there are still two small surprises to come in short order. When the E chord appears in measure 16 you think to yourself, "oh well, so much for a modulation to C, it's straight back to the home key of a minor now." Yet when the bridge begins, we're given not a minor, but rather the parallel Major key of A. It's not so much a big surprise per se, but it is sufficient to add to that sense of restlessness; "hey George, either sit still, or let's really go somewhere for a change!"
  Next note The first eight measures of this verse feature George singing by himself but double-tracked. The second eight measures present a different vocal arrangement, one that persists for most of the rest of the song: in the third phrase, George sings the melody part while Paul sings in harmony with him in parallel thirds unusually placed above the melody. The fourth refrain-like phrase reverts to just George. Although George does have the melody in that third phrase and Paul sounds as though mixed less prominently than George, I can't help but wonder if Paul might have been trying to horn-in or upstage poor old Hari in his own song by singing the upper part.
  Next note In the backing part, we find Clapton interjecting his brief comments in the final two measures of each couplet. Starting in the second couplet of this verse (measure 9, ff.) the cymbal slashes are abandoned in favor of bass and snare drum work plus a "dum-ditty-dum" sort of quiet tapping on what sounds like a wood block, mixed far to the left.
 

First Bridge - "I don't know why ..."

  Next note Harmonically, the bridge further adds to the paradoxical mood of expansiveness with its sixteen-measure length, and the restlessness with its chord progression. Structurally, it is a verbatim repetition of the following eight-measure phrase:
 
      |A       |c#      |f#      |c#      |
   A:  I        iii               iii      
           c#:  I        iv       I

      |b       |-       |E       |-       |
   A:  ii                V

   [Figure 25.2]
  Just like the ending of the verse, no sooner have we arrived with some sense of decisiveness in A Major then we appear to be off yet again; this time apparently for the comparatively remote environs of c-sharp minor. But the establishment of this key, as with both C Major and A Major before it, is not only short-lived, but also weakly established via its IV chord instead of with a stronger I -» V -» I cadence.
  Next note As with any good bridge section, this one provides both sharp contrast to the surrounding verses as well as further development of the essential thematic mood of the song. Overall, this bridge provides some well needed upward gestures as well as an opening up of the melodic and harmonic space. In keeping with the rest of the song though, this initial feeling of new energy is quickly dissipated by section's end with a sad descending which is reminiscent of that of the verse.
  Next note Melodically, the bridge starts off with a dramatic swing upward. The melody of the verse had been constrained to the small melodic range of A to E (actually, E and G just below the A also make brief embellishing appearances though they are not a key part of the action). The first part of the bridge extends the range all the way up to G#, though in keeping with the inevitably sad nature of the piece, the melodic range of the second half of the bridge tends back downward to where it overlaps with that of the verse.
  Next note In parallel to the melody, there is a lifting of the harmonic root motion at the beginning of each bridge phrase that suggests a momentary flash of optimism but it quickly fades in the stepwise-downward motion of the c# -» b chords which follow, and the eventual faltering of the harmonic rhythm in the remainder of the phrase, suggestive of a loss of energy as well as hope.
  Next note Note how the official version tries to counterbalance this suggestion of lost vigor at the end of each phrase by a scale-wise pumping up based on the V chord which makes the music drive forward into the next phrase. By contrast and with greater pathos, the outtake version leaves this wilting gesture more simply exposed.
  Next note The arrangement of the bridge features George singing double-tracked by himself again, without the help of Paul. The drumming in this section is slightly different yet again from what preceded it.
 

Second Verse - "I look at the world ..."

  Next note This second verse is built on the same musical structure as the first one. The primary difference aside from the new words is in the way the vocal duet introduced in phrase three of the first verse is now repeated in both the first and third phrase of this one.
 

Guitar Solo Verse

  Next note Even without the all the flanging and bent notes, this is still one gem of a guitar solo. I'll resist the temptation to supply a complete transcription of it for now but will at least sketch it out.
  Above all, it is an extraordinarily melodic, even vocal sounding solo in which the sixteen measures are treated not as a couplet, but rather are broken up into two slow, deep and contrasting phrases of eight measures each. The solo achieves some unity with the rest of the song by virtue of Clapton's starting off with a retracing of the melodic outline of George's sung melody, as well as the fact the style of guitar figuration used in the solo had already been consistently presented in obbligato licks starting as early as the introduction.
  Next note While the vocal melody of the verse presented a full arch shape in the space of only eight measures, Clapton spreads the arch of his solo out over most of the full sixteen measures of the section. He works his way up a full octave in measures 1 - 8, suspensefully sustains the high note in measures 9 and 10, ambles slowly back down the octave in measures 10 - 14, and then, with breathtaking surprise in the final two measures, passes delicately below the low end of the octave and very quickly finishes up with a flourish which takes him all the way back up the octave to end on his earlier high note as the second bridge begins.
  Next note The high A of this guitar solo is not only the single highest melodic note of the entire song, but on some subliminal level it provides ultimate resolution of the high G# left hanging in the bridge section. Even more significantly, the ending of this solo is very much the climax of the song because it is the single moment in the song where a positive, upward gesture has the last word and appears to stick; at least for a moment. Whatever follows this section more or less provides ballast and an emotional unwinding from this high point.
 

Second Bridge - "I don't know how ..."

  Next note Just as with the successive verses, this second bridge is musically identical to the first one but for the use of different lyrics and minor tweaks to the backing track.
  Next note Note how cleverly the relationship between the "why" and "how" of the two bridges seems to parallel the "while" and "still" of the verses.
  Next note Also note the subtle addition in this section of a clanging sound on the off-beats in the percussion; what could it possibly be, finger cymbals miked very closely?
 

Third Verse - "I look at you all ..." / "I look from wings ..."

  Next note This last verse presents still more fiddling with the words and arrangement. Though the official version essentially repeats the lyrics of the first verse, the third line is unusually truncated. In the vocal part, Paul's accompaniment of George at a third above is now extended even to include the fourth phrase.
  Next note The outtake presents all new words in this final verse, none of which appear in the official version.
 

Outro

  Next note In keeping with both the spirit and scale of the song to this point, we are given an unusually long outro consisting of almost two full iterations of the verse section; close to thirty-two measures of instrumental music into a fade-out that is accompanied by moanings, both vocal and Claptonesque.
  Next note In equally consistent contrast, the outtake makes a small musical change in the final verse so that its final two measures make a neat I -» V -» I cadence into a comparatively brief eight-measure outro which has a complete ending.
  Next note Incidentally, for those who like to follow this sort of detail, there is what sounds to me like a glitch near the very end of the official version. In the last repetition of the verse section (at which point we're pretty well into the fade-out) it appears as though Paul and the rest of the group are out of step, chord-wise in both measures 7 and 15. To give all concerned the benefit of the doubt, it's hard to tell if it's a mistake outright, or more a matter of Paul's suddenly trying out a new improvisatory trick with the bassline based on his assumption that the finished track would be fully faded out by this point.
 

"As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging ..."

  Next note Having paid insufficient attention to the words, I've been walking around for years thinking that this song is obviously about a love whom George has lost or given up because he has grown apart from her on some spiritual, intellectual level; as if it were his version of John's "And Your Bird Can Sing", or even perhaps a Harrisonian adaptation of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Not [sic! :-)] Allright". But then I finally noticed the enigmatic use of the word "all" and for the first time realized that this song has as much in common with "Within You Without You" as it does with "Think For Yourself".
  Alas, poor George cries for us all, but more is the pity that his insight here is one which enervates him to a walking-in-circles inability to act rather than infusing him with the energy to do something about it. It's rather comforting to know that in retrospect, it would be only a relatively short time after "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that this same Mr. Harrison would be capable of finding some joyful inspiration in the sunny clear light of the backyard belonging to the same Mr. Clapton.
  Next note Returning to our two different arrangements, you might say that, to the extent that tears come to reflect a broad spectrum of moods, both versions are on some level a legitimate rendering of the words to our song. For some, the official version may seem a bit maudlin, while for others, the outtake will be lacking in production values. In the final result, whichever you prefer is likely to be a matter of your own sweet taste.
  Regards,
  Alan (021291#25.0)
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Copyright © 1991 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.