alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Baby's In Black"


Notes on ... Series #59 (BIB)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 3/4
      Form: Intro | Refrain | Verse | Refrain | Verse |
                  | Bridge | Refrain | Refrain (guitar solo) |
                  | Bridge | Refrain | Verse |
                  | Refrain (with complete ending)
        CD: "Beatles For Sale", Track 3 (Parlophone CDP7 46438-2)
  Recorded: 11th August 1964, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 4th December 1964 (LP "Beatles For Sale")
US-release: 15th December 1964 (LP "Beatles '65")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Formalistically, this one is among the more verbose and complicated songs we've looked at, with its refrain, bridge, and guitar solo sections. While the Beatles didn't go in for this sort of thing very often, neither is such a form unprecedented. Examples uncovered thus far in our studies include "It Won't Be Long", "When I Get Home", and "You're Going To Lose That Girl". The fact that the preceding list is entirely built out of songs that conspicuously belong to John would seem noteworthy.
  Next note Stylistically, the song has an unusual mishmash of elements — the bluesy tune and choice of chords; the folksy almost hillbilly vocal arrangement; not to mention the exotic touch in the final verse where those drone-like open fifths in the bass parts conjure, to my ears, a strange musical cross between Scottish bagpipes and an Indian tamboura.
  Next note John described it as a waltz (check his spoken lead into the song at the Paris concerts in January 1965), but in spite of the 3/4 time signature, the rapid tempo and agitated mood of the piece seem out of character with that Romantic dance form.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melodic mode is almost entirely Major with the exception of some intermittent use of the bluesy minor third in the refrain.
  Next note Very few chords are used throughout and the song remains firmly rooted in the initial home key. The refrain and verse sections limit themselves to the familiar I, IV and V chords. Although the bridge adds in the vi and V-of-V for variety, its still all simple stuff.
  Next note The one notable harmonic detail is the familiar Beatles' trademark of directly following V-of-V with IV instead of V. Early and contemporary examples of this are to be found in "She Loves You" "I Call Your Name" and "Eight Days A Week".


  Next note There's an unusual unrelieved end-to-end vocal duet with John on bottom and Paul on top. This relative lack of textural variety here increases the tension and intensity of the mood. Note though how in spite of the predominance of parallel thirds in the two voice parts, there are several places in which they subtly branch out into a more typically Lennon/McCartney kind of counterpoint; check out the end of the refrain and the opening of the bridge.
  Next note The instrumental texture is similarly consistent throughout, though in a wise attempt to avoid monotony and provide a bit of contrast, they make a temporarily radical change to the backing for the final verse before resuming the original texture for the closing refrain; an effect which would be repeated with equal success in "Help!".

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is a scant four measures long and creates the effect of your having walked in on the middle of the song, just as it was coming out of a refrain section:
      |A      |E      |A      |-      |
   A:  I       V       I

   [Figure 59.1]
  Next note The guitar hook heard right at the beginning anticipates a key phrase of the tune ("Oh, what can I do") and provides a means of unification from the way it is repeated at the end of every refrain except for the second one. The fourth refrain, by the way, presents the guitar hook in a different range than elsewhere, and I have a hard time deciding weather this is avoidance of foolish consistency or just sloppy playing.


  Next note The refrain is twelve measures long and is built out of three phrases equal in length:
      |A      |-      |E      |-      |
   A:  I               V

      |D      |-      |E      |-      |
       IV              V

      |A      |D      |A      |-      |
       I       IV      I

   [Figure 59.2]
  Next note The melodic shape is an inverted arch. The harmonic shape is closed. The chords are the familiar I, IV and V of the blues form though the progression pattern is far from the traditional one of that form.


  Next note The verse is an unusual fourteen measures long and built out of three phrases whose number of measures create an asymmetrical pattern of 4 + 4 + 6:
       |A      |-      |-      |-      |
   A:   I

       |A      |-      |D      |-      |
       (V-of-IV)        IV

       |D      |-      |A      |E      |A      |-      |
        IV              I       V       I

   [Figure 59.3]
  Next note Again, the harmonic shape of the section is closed, though the strategy of the chords not changing on the phrase boundaries creates a subtle sense of freedom.
  Next note For those who are keeping score of such things, note the "and" versus "but" word collision in the final verse. This one is even picked up by the compilers of the lyrical concordance, "Things We Said Today" [**]. However, I believe that if you listen carefully, it also sounds like there is another collision (this time on "he" versus "she") immediately following, though this one sounds as though it is perhaps a residue from an earlier guide vocal track that they were trying to mix out.
  [** see: Campbell, Colin, and Allan Murphy (1980), Things We Said Today. The Complete Lyrics and a Concordance to the Beatles' Songs, 1962-1970. Ann Arbor: Pierian Press, 1980.]


  Next note The bridge is eight measures long and would appear on the surface to be made up of two phrases equal in length:
   |f#     |-      |B      |-      |D      |-      |E      |-      ||A
    ii              V-of-V          IV              V                I

   [Figure 59.4]
  Next note Actually, the second phrase carries all the way through into the beginning of the ninth measure, where it makes a striking elision with the start of the next refrain. It's an unusual example of this technique, even for the Boys, because even the words here are elided at the point where the two sections intersect; e.g. "made ... dear" instead of "Oh, dear".
  Next note The overall melodic range is cleverly managed. The frequently repeated refrain contains the unique low point of the tune, but it also reiterates a constricted high point on the pitch E almost to the point of monotony. The verse sections open the high end up as far as G, but these sections even more so emphasize the same harping on E heard in the refrains. The climactic peak of the song (on the pitch A) is held back and dramatically released right at the start of the bridge.

Guitar Solo

  Next note For a guy who made such a specialty of the well-practiced kind of solo that is the most understated delicate paraphrase of the tune, George really lets go here with a solo whose only obvious connection to the original refrain melody is to be found in the lilting cadence of its rhythmic pattern. Otherwise, in place of the predominantly stepwise melodic arch performed by the singers, we get a guitar part that is not only full of long jumps, but is also peppered through with bent notes and free dissonances against the underlying chords; all in all, a worthy contrast with the surrounding sections.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note To the extent that the common wisdom seems to obsess on the "downbeat" mood of the "For Sale" album, I suppose that its the implicitly lugubrious nature of the words to "Baby's In Black" that may have contributed more so to this phenomenon than any one other song.
  Next note Personally, I've never been swayed too much by that. For one thing, it has always seemed easy enough to simply interpret the mourning described in the lyric as figurative, rather than literal. And when all else fails, I still find it difficult to get hung about a song that sounds so similar in a way to the traditional folk ditty, "Oh dear what can the matter be?"; no matter how gamey the words may be :-)
  Alan (061692#59)
Copyright © 1992 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.