alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Dear Prudence"


Notes on ... Series #131 (DP)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Mixolydian Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Verse' | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 2 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 28th-30th August 1968, Trident Studios
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Here we've got another fine example of how John took that same droney aesthetic with which George was so enthralled and went much further with it in terms of synthetic creativity. George may have felt both isolated and patronized by Lennon and McCartney as a songwriting team and one some level; just because you're rejection sensitive it doesn't mean they're not really out to ignore you :-) However, I suspect that on an individual basis, John at least took note of, and more than a passing interest in George's musical preoccupations. Granted, this interest didn't yield much in the way of direct collaboration; "Cry For A Shadow" is something of a fluke, after all. But in terms of the more subtle question of indirect influence and inspiration, the common thread that runs through the likes of "Rain", "Tomorrow Never Knows"; and the subject of this specific study is intriguing.
  Next note "Dear Prudence" has not only a static harmonic profile, but even a formally flat floor plan; a steady stream of harmonically identical verses interrupted only once at the formal mid-point by a simple bridge which, itself, is as harmonically single-minded as the rest of the song.
  Next note The impressive accomplishment is that such a satisfying build up of tension and its release is achieved In Spite Of All Stasis :-) The challenge is to create a sense of build up without relying much at all on either harmony or melody. Instead, the strategy is to carefully sustain an atmosphere within which texture and dynamic crescendo are developed over the long run.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune is pentatonic in a style quite typical for John; the fourth and seventh notes of the scale are completely avoided, and the melodic material comes in the form of rhetorically repeated motifs, rather than in a more broadly spun out arch.
  Next note The harmony is largely played out over a pedal tone on D. It's the complete avoidance of the melodic seventh combined with the flat-VII harmonies that creates the Mixolydian modal feel.


  Next note The piece is characterized by two ostinato patterns which, once heard, stay under your skin forever. The first is an inverted cuckoo clock motif that appears throughout as though part of the aural wallpaper, plucked on the lead guitar near the bridge to give it a distinctive tone that is somehow piercingly metallic even when played mezzo-piano. The second is a semi-chromatic downward-walking tenor voice played on the bass guitar.
  Next note The arrangement is layered and choreographed with even more than the usual amount of care typically lavished by the Beatles on such things at this point of the career. The overall game plan is one of starting off soto voce but becoming continually louder and more intense, only to restore the sotto voce for the outro:
  • Intro: just guitar and bass.
  • First verse: add lead vocal, bass note played on the 3rd beat of the measure; add drums in the second half in which the bassline does the stylistically Baroque trick of outlining both pedal bass and walking tenor voice.
  • Second verse: "all skate;" bassline continues the Baroque trick from the start; backing vocals in the second half provide a sustained chord sung in surreal falsetto.
  • Break: add the unique appearance of male chorus in background singing a mantra at first in imitation of the lead vocal, but which in the final phrase becomes block chords sung in a glissando with the lead.
  • Third verse: as in the second verse, but add more guitar overdubs and handclaps.
  • Final verse: as in the third verse, but add electric piano and much louder drumming; and stretch out the harmonic rhythm for the "crux" phrase.
  • Outro: a sudden reprise of the quiet intro. This is a very nice matching bookends effect ("You're missing a great effect!" :-)), though you should compare it with coda of "Hey Jude" where the caravan really does pass s-l-o-w-l-y. Here in "Dear Prudence", it rather turns a corner and quickly becomes history.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The song opens with an intro to the intro; four measures of drone harmony over which the lead guitar works slowly down a scale that is ornamented by the cuckoo clock motif that is one of the fixed ideas of the piece.
   (F#)   fade-in ...
   |...    E       |D      C       |B      A       |G      G       |
   |D              |-              |-              |-              |

    ostinato begins
   |F#   D F#     D|F#   D F#     D|F# ...
   |A      C       |B      Bb      |A
   |D              |-              |-

   [Figure 131.1]
  Next note The cross fade of jet plane noise from the previous track obscures the first two beats of this intro, but those two beats must be there, "by implication", if nothing else.


  Next note The predominating pedal tone makes you experience what otherwise might be labeled a roman numeral progression of "I -» V7-of-IV -» IV -» iv -» I" more a matter of the upper voices "harmonizing" with the tenor voice that walkingly descends the semi-chromatic cliché of D -» C -» B -» B-flat -» A. I believe this feeling persists even when, in the second half of the song, the bassline begins to carry off the descent without continued reference to the pedal tone.
  Next note Contrast this with the very different effect created by the same cliché as it is used in "Magical Mystery Tour"; the major differences being that in "Magical Mystery Tour" the cliché always appears in the bassline (not the tenor voice) and the harmonic terminus of the line is the V chord, not just a direct cycling back to I.
  Next note The verse section is fourteen measures long with a phrasing pattern of AA'B that is rounded out by an additional instrumental repeat of the two-bar ostinato; the latter being what I call the musical equivalent of a mechanical washer:
    ----------------------------- 2X ------------------------------
   |D      C       |B      Bb      |A      C       |B      Bb      |
   |D              |-              |-              |-              |

    ---------- the crux -----------
   |A      C       |B      Bb      |         **rapidly walking bass ...
   |D              |-              |-              |C      G       |
                                                    flat-  IV
   |A      C       |B      Bb      |
   |D              |-              |

   [Figure 131.2]
  Next note The only place in this section where the harmony explicitly moves off the one chord is the last measure of the third phrase, where a suddenly very active bassline accompanies the familiar "Hey Jude"-chord progression.


  Next note Both ostinato figures take a rest during the bridge though the harmony remains static.
  Next note The bridge is an unusual five and a half measures long and contains three short phrases that make an AAB pattern; kind of like the verse but in miniature. Yet another washer-like repeat of the ostinato intervenes before the next verse.
   |D              |-              |-              |-              |

                    -half-  -- ostinato resumes
                           |A      C       |B      Bb      |
   |F              |G      |D              |-              |
    flat-III        IV      I

   [Figure 131.3]
  Next note By funny coincidence, the I -» flat-III -» IV progression which sounds so haunting in this context turns out to be the same one used to different effect in the previous song, "Back In The USSR".


  Next note The final verse provides several climax-underscoring gestures:
  • The crux phrase (only!) is stretched out to twice it's usual length by a double of the harmonic rhythm.
  • This elongated phrase is accompanied by a rising series of arpeggios on the lead guitar; an extremely "classical" gesture, I dare say.
  • The two-measure "washer" phrase merely sustains the I chord without embellishment this last time, to lead, all the more smoothly, into the outro.
  Next note If you had any doubt about my comment re: the missing-but-implied F# at the start of the intro, do note how it does show up for the outro.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The static quality of the music underscores both the sense of the lyrics and the gist of the story which underlies them. You'll know what I mean if you have ever tried to encourage, cajole or convince someone you care about to detach themselves from someone or something to whom (or which) they are self-destructively stuck.
  Alan (063097#131)
Copyright © 1997 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.