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notes on ...

Notes on "Don't Let Me Down"


Notes on ... Series #162 (DLMD)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Refrain | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Alternate Verse | Refrain |
                            | Verse | Refrain |
                            | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Past Masters", Volume 2, Track 10, with Billy Preston
            (Parlophone CDP 90044-2)
  Recorded: 22nd, 28th, 30th January 1969, Apple Studios
UK-release: 11th April 1969 (B Single / "Get Back")
US-release: 5th May 1969 (B Single / "Get Back")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Here we've got a slow, hard-driving screamer that has John's musical fingerprints all over it:
  • Formal twists — It's strictly symmetrical, with a unique "Alternate Verse" section smack in the center keystone position, and the instrumental break is pushed back to the Outro.
  • Slow triplets used for rhetorical emphasis — While Buddy Holly would save these until near the end of the song for climactic effect (see "That'll Be The Day"), watch how this song shoots the wad right at the get go. It's a not so subtle signal that what's coming is going to be intense.
  • Uneven phrasing — The anacrusis leading into each phrase of the verse is extended by one, free-verse-like, extra beat; one line of pentameter in an otherwise four-square milieu.
  • Pentatonic tune — The seventh scale degree is completely avoided in both diatonic leading tone form and its chromatically flattened mutation. The fourth scale degree shows up only in the backing vocal as it follows the tune in parallel thirds.
  • Harmonic frugality — Just three chords explicitly (I, ii, V) plus the strong hint of IV; no more.
  • Deceptively complex message in the lyrics — The verses deliver a cleverly worded yet unambiguous encomium about love's latest object in the third person. The refrains, in rather unsettling contrast, transmit a primal scream for insurance on direct address to the same love's "object". In hindsight, even the words of praise seem a tad selfcentered around the edges in the sense of, what's the protagonist done for her lately?

Melody and Harmony

  Next note Pentatonic here means E - F# - G# - B - C#. No D or D#, and A shows up very sparingly.
  Next note The melodic shape of the Refrain is drivingly downward. The Verse ends with a similar gesture, in spite of its starting off with a strong suggestion that a broad, upward melodic arch is in the offing. The Alternate Verse breaks the mold but not only by providing an unhampered complete arch, but also spreading it out over the course of its two phrase. The Refrain and Verse each featured an internal form of AA.
  Next note The tune runs roughshod over the chords, adding a seventh to ii, and often adding some combination of 7, 9, 11, and/or 13 to V. The latter effect makes it sound almost as if IV had been superimposed on V; i.e. think of B in the bass with A, C#, and E in the treble.
  Next note The Verse and Refrain section share the harmonic trait of starting off as if "on edge"; decidely away from the I chord but converging harmonic shape, both starting and ending with I. The Beatles clearly were sensitive to analogous situations in other songs of their acquaintance. In one Twickenham bootleg, a jam session that starts off with "Sun King" transitions later into this song. Similarly, a later runthrough of this song causes them by free association to talk about and then attempt to stumblingly reprise a bit of "Devil In Her Heart".
  Again, the Alternate Verse is given to break the mold by both starting and ending on I.
  Next note The IV chord appears sort of in the mist in a number of places in the song, though you'd be hard pressed to catch them playing it clearly, and explicitly. Often when you think you're hearing IV, it's more likely that funky V7/9/11 trick. Though I could swear the close of every refrain sounds damn like a plagal cadence with IV executed in the second inversion.


  Next note Just like with its "Get Back" flip side, the arrangement of this song is in the live, impromptu style. John's short stretch of double tracked lead vocal in the Alternate Verse is perhaps the only dead giveaway that this track was retouched in the studio.
  Next note The lead vocal range runs over an octave and a half, forcing John out of his comfort zone and encouraging yelping, chatty byplay with Paul of the sort for which he (Paul) usually needed very little encouragement to get going.
  Next note The counterpoint melody played in octaves during the Alternate Verse by the bass and lead guitars is one of the more novel, unusual instrumental touches you'll find anywhere in the Beatles catalogue.
  Next note The vocal arrangement here is a bit less neat than usual. The Refrains are done with some consistency, but not so for the verses. In the first Verse, John starts off solo with Paul joining him for the second phrase; in the final verse John sings solo all the way through. I wonder if this is a matter of them taking less care here than usual, or if, in a kind of reverse backlash, they went out of there way to make sure this would be less neat.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is two measures long and turns out to be taken from the final two measures of the Verse section. The slow triplets that declaim the title phrase start in the second half of the second measure.
      |E     (A?)  |-           |
   E:  I     (IV?)  I

   [Figure 162.1]
  Next note The second half of the first measure here is a perfect example of what I call the "phantom" IV chord.


  Next note The refrain is eight measures long with an AA phrase pattern:
    ----------------------- 2X -------------------------
   |f#          |-     B     |E           |-            |
     ii                 V      I       (IV?)

   [Figure 162.2]


  Next note The Verse is also eight measures long with an AA phrase pattern. The measure that precedes each verse phrase is extended an extra beat.
    ----------------------- 2X ------------------------
   |f#          |-     B     |E           |-           |
    ii                 V      I

   [Figure 162.3]
  Next note Harmonically, the one subtle difference between Refrain and Verse is the switch to the V chord in the second measure on the fourth beat rather than the third.

Alternate Verse

  Next note This section is eight measures long, and is the only section that's not in an AA phrase pattern:
   |E           |-           |B           |-           |
    I                         V

   |B           |-           |E           |-           |
    V                         I       (IV?)

   [Figure 162.4]


  Next note The outro provides one last complete refrain, primarily for Billy Preston's electric piano solo, but with more than ample amounts of vocal horsing around from John and Paul added in for good measure.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note In terms of style, underlying attitude, and the widely scattered number of alternate versions unofficially available of it, "Don't Let Me Down" is arguably about as archetypal and emblematic of the "Get Back" / "Let It Be" Era as either of one the latter's alternating "title" tracks.
  Next note Nevertheless, "Don't Let Me Down" curiously failed to make the cut for the "Let It Be" album. It appears in official release only as a lowly single B-side, taken no less, from a take that sounds peculiarly muddy, and in my humble opinion is not necessarily the best take that was available to them. For my money, the 1/22 version that was slated for the "Get Back" is superior to the official 1/28 performance in terms of both musical execution and extremely interesting studio chat; e.g. "give me the courage to come screaming in," and "hit it, Bill!"
  Next note It remains another one of those songs whose collective set of alternate versions transcends the value and appeal of any one particular runthrough. Once you've got the bunch of them downloaded in your head, the single version is no longer necessarily your favorite, nor does it earn even your mental imprimatur as particularly "official". (You might say the latter applies to no small number of the songs from these sessions if you're any kind of "Get Back" bootleg friend.)
  Next note Perhaps the apparently offhanded treatment of this song in official release combined with the sheer variety of alternates available suggests that the Beatles themselves weren't sure exactly how they wanted to nail it down and just decided to let it (uh ...) be.
  Alan (030799#162)
Copyright © 1999 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.