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notes on ...

Notes on "Birthday"


Notes on ... Series #20.0 (B.0)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major / C Major
     Meter: 4/4
        CD: "White Album", Disc 2, Track 1 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 18th September 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")
  Next note In its "White Album" context of such varied moods and styles, "Birthday" stands out as a representative example of the sort of plain old blistering rock that the Beatles were still capable of in their so-called Late Period. On the surface, one of the first things you notice is that this is one of the very few songs by Lennon and McCartney that is even partly in strict twelve-bar blues form, though once you probe more deeply, you quickly discover that this is no mere rote revivalist knock-off.

R&B Revisited

  Next note It's really quite a thought provoking paradox: from their repertoire as the Quarrymen, you'd think the only thing they knew how to play, or perhaps wanted to play, were the Blues (see Pollack, "The Quarrymen Sessions, 1960", Illegal Beatles #17, Spring 1990 :-)). Later as the Beatles, both at the Beeb and on their first several EMI albums, their choices for cover songs were again frequently in the twelve-bar mode; "Boys", ""Long Tall Sally", "Dizzy Miss Lizzie", and just about anything by Chuck Berry, to name a few.
  Next note And yet, when you do a sort through the canon of official releases looking for originals which are at least partially built on a strict blues form you come up amazingly short. Prior to the "White Album", I could only find four examples: the verses of "Can't Buy Me Love", "You Can't Do That", "The Word", and the middle eight of "She's A Woman".
  Next note This relative dearth of twelve-bar originals (pun fully intended) continues through the "White Album" and beyond, even though the standard wisdom says that the last couple of albums demonstrate a conscious return to their early roots. In spite of the number of hard rock songs on those albums, you still find very few blues numbers: only "Birthday", "Yer Blues", "For You Blue", and "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" (and this is even stretching it a tad). Granted, there are many songs in the cannon that are very blues-like (examples abound throughout, all the way from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Come Together"), but if you grade them strictly, they fail the cut.
  Next note As an attempt to explain this paradox I would propose that as nascent artists, the Beatles not just admired their Blues predecessors but, in a burst of post-adolescent enthusiasm even sought to emulate and sometimes imitate them; e.g. listen to the Quarrymen do Elvis' "That's When Your Heartache Begins". But as they matured they likely found that, in spite of all early interest, the strict blues form was not an idiom they felt all that comfortable with in terms of self image and expression. Interestingly, they never quite forgot or expunged the technique from their vocabulary, but it did remain for them something to be used sparingly, for special effect and exotic tang.
  Next note When you consider this elite group of the Beatles' blues songs, it's tempting to describe their style as "Neo R&B" to the extent that they manifest more of a self-conscious updated stylization of an old form and not just a nostalgic evocation of it. In spite of the presence in these songs of the twelve-bar formula, in terms of arrangement, lyrics, and the choice of keys and chord progressions used in the non-blues sections, they are musically very different from the classic role models which inspired them.
  Next note So much for the leisurely part of the outing; ready for the main event?


  Next note In essence, we have something very close to one of the standard forms, the two bridge model. The unique twists here are the long intro-like instrumental opener, and the amazing connector sections which introduce each appearance of the bridge:
   Verse (instrumental) |
         | Verse (vocal) | Long Connector | Bridge |
         | Verse (instrumental) | Short Connector | Bridge |
         | Verse (vocal)
  Next note Another formalistic technique which considerably unifies the song is the consistent use of antiphony in all appearances of both verse and bridge sections, as we'll see.

Verse — "You say it's your birthday ..."

  Next note This section is a standard twelve-bar blues frame with all the chords appearing as dominant sevenths. If you want to get picky, it's worth pointing out that the sustaining of the V chord in measure 10 (as opposed to the more typical move to IV) is mildly unusual though not unheard of. The bassline riff syncopatedly outlines the chords and is heard doubled by the lead guitar two octaves higher; e.g. | A A - C# E - G F# - - E | A ...
      |A7      |-       |-       |-       |
   A:  I

      |D7      |-       |A7      |-       |
       IV                I

      |E7      |-       |A7      |-       |
       V                 I

   [Figure 20.1]
  Next note This section appears four times in the song, and though the second and fourth repetitions with their virtually identical arrangement and lyrics are indeed quite verse-like, the first and third appearances of this section are entirely instrumental and appear to serve the purpose of introduction and "solo" break section, respectively.
  Next note The instrumental intro leads right off with an antiphonal gesture which is carried through almost every section of the song. In this introductory verse, you have the bass doubled by lead guitar in the odd numbered measures alternating with parrot-like repetition by just the bass alone in the even numbered measures. The vocal verses similarly feature the voices only in the even-numbered measures. The break verse, yet again, features the piano part in the same place that the voices were.

Long Connector — "Yes we're going to a party party ..."

  Next note This section is built out of two eight-measure phrases each of which is hypnotically repetitive, the end result of which is a buildup of tension that makes you want to beg your partner to tie you down if you don't get some relief very soon.
  • The first eight-measure phrase features drums only with Macca shreaking a count-off of the measure numbers that is muffled so far in the background that it's barely audible except with earphones.
  • The second eight measures beats away on the V chord (E) with the vocals coming in as a slight surprise starting in the third measure.
  Next note It's tempting to ascribe the shreaking in the first phrase as just another obscure "clue" of sorts, though the little details in the way the numbers are recited over the beat definitely add to the building tension. Note for example how there is a straight-line climax which crests on "seven" but is followed by an "eight" that can't even wait for that number measure to begin. Similarly, during the second phrase, we have both a general crescendo as well as a quickening of the handwork in the drums.
  Next note But even more effective than the buildup per se is the way that when the climax arrives, it's a "deceptive" one; that V chord resolves not to I (A) but rather to the old "Buddy Holly" chord of flat-VI (C); do keep your ears attuned to the way that bassline snakes its way from the sustained E down toward C during the second half of the last measure.

Bridge — "I would like you to dance ... Birthday"

  Next note The choice of C Major as the key for this bridge is not so far out as it would appear on the surface; C being the relative Major of the parallel minor of A, and it's a key relationship employed in many other songs; e.g. "You're Going To Lose That Girl". In "Birthday", it's quite a surprise nontheless, coming as the deceptive resolution of that prolonged V chord of the preceding section. As surprises go, it's actually quite a pleasurable one at that; one which adds a bit of tonal depth perspective to the music; as though a door had opened to reveal another universe that you suspected, but were never quite certain, was there.
  Next note This section has musical ties both to the verse in terms of its use of antiphony (between Macca and the female backers) and to the preceding connector in terms of its repetitiveness. The bassline in this section also harkens back somewhat to the riff used in the verse:
            ------- 3X -------
   Chords: |C        |G       |C        |G         |B       |E        |
 Bassline: |C-E-F-F#-|G-F-E-D-|C-E-F-F#-|G-G#-A-A#-|B       |E        |
        C:  I         V        I         V
                                                A:  V-of-V   V

   [Figure 20.2]
  Next note Other points of interest:
  • Note the way the bassline makes its rearward approach to the note B by a clever "keep going" extension of the upward chromatic motion already in progress as part of the first half of the riff.
  • Note how heady it feels to have arrived on the B-Major chord, especially since we've just barely recovered our bearings from the surprise modulation to C; the passionately inarticulate noise of Macca screaming "dance" in rhythmic pattern totally at odds with the beat enhances the rush of it. For a brief instant, there's a vertigo sensation of not being sure of just where you stand key-wise from the promentory of this B chord, but before you are allowed to get too unhinged over it, the music procedes simply around the cycle of fifths right back to the home key of A. In retrospect, it all seems like nothing to get hung about, but in the warm moment of immediate experience, you were moved.
  • The appearance of the female backing voices is another small source of surprise here; after this, how could Paul have claimed to be upset two years later about Spector's adding the chorus to "Across The Universe"? According to Lewisohn, it was an impromptu decision to recruit Yoko and Patti for their participation here; makes one wonder what the heck Linda was up to that evening :-)

Short Connector

  Next note There is a profound lesson to be learned about the dramatics of music when you contemplate how this shorter connecting section serves a functionally identical purpose to the earlier longer one even though it is musically so different from that first one in almost every way.
  Next note In terms of structural utility, both connectors serve the purpose of modulating from the key of A to the key of C. But look at the obvious differences between them, nonetheless:
  • This one is only four measures long compared to the earlier one of sixteen.
  • Here we have a return to the orchestration of the opening verse with just guitars playing plain octaves punctuated by sparse drumwork, whereas earlier, we had quite a bit of drums and even vocals.
  • Even the specific strategy for making the modulation is different; here, the natural minor mode of A (with its C- and G-naturals — no sharps!) which is used for the guitar parts makes for a smooth and gentle transition, while earlier, the entire mood was one of climax and surprise.
  Next note In the end, it's a simple law of physics and the art of avoiding anti- climax which demands these differences. To put it rather crudely and simultaneously lift a phrase which Maureen Cleave used to describe John (not Paul), even "a young man, famous, loaded, and waiting for something" can't reset that quickly. And besides, a repetition of the long connector would frankly start to chafe, whereas this quieter short one (it's the only place in the entire song where the drums stop for a few beats) provides some welcome respite.

Final Verse

  Next note The rest of the song follows the gesture of that second connector and provides more matched bookend ballast and balance than further excitement.
  Next note Also direct your attention to the way the suddeness of the complete ending is molified nicely by two details: the decelerating effect of the syncopations in the last few measures of the song (they don't appear anywhere else before this), and the broken octaves on the piano which seem to psychedelically ricochet even as they fade. The net effect reminds me of the way your body is jostled when you stop the car too quickly.

Thumping Those Pagan Skins

  Next note The drumming and other special percussion effects on this song (such as maracas, tambourine, and hand claps) are worthy of special notice.
  Next note Ringo turns in an effective performance of his trademark technique of punctuating long stretches of evenly accented eight notes with complex thirty-second note snare drum fills in all the right places; typically, though not limited to the boundary lines between sections. By the way, I offer a gold star to anyone who can tell on what beat of the measure the opening flourish begins!
  Next note If you make the effort on your own to map out how the rest of the percussion effects are worked into the piece, you'll find the texture of each section of the song has been carefully and neatly planned out. The point being that even in a song like "Birthday" which we know was worked up very quickly, and where a certain informal, "come as you are" feeling permeates right to the core of the piece, still, nothing is left to chance. This of course is a hot button for those who like to rag on Paul for being such a control freak, but in my humble opinion, it's this attention to detail that elevates a good rock song to the level of a gem.

Seizing the Moment (This One)

  Next note In the final result, it's quite astounding to read in Lewisohn that this song was essentially composed by Paul, arranged, recorded and mixed in just one extended session of eleven and a half hours starting in the late afternoon of September 18, 1968 and running through the wee hours of the next morning.
  Next note Of course, to keep it in perspective, this song is no magnum opus; for one thing, the elements of both words and music here are quite simple, and the equally simple device of happy repetition is used effectively to expedite the cranking out of the piece. But none of this diminishes in any way the incredible prowess demonstrated in this act of spontaneous effusion.
  And it is in this spontaneity per se that I believe that the genius of Macca, circa 1968 is manifested. From the style of my analysis you might get the mistaken impression that I somehow imagine him walking into the studio after many hours of erudite forethought with the song all worked out in his head and a point to prove, Mozart-like. Actually, I rather expect it to have all been quite the opposite way. In this energetically vital and innovative song, I hear a composer so well primed and up to speed, so "ready to do the show right now" that the music springs right out of him without much of a struggle at all, as though it were all so casual, second-nature, and obviously meant to be.
  Alan (072290#20.0)
Copyright © 1990 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.