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notes on ...

Notes on "Doctor Robert"


Notes on ... Series #100 (DR)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: B Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Verse / Outro (into fade-out)
        CD: "Revolver", Track 11 (Parlophone CDP7 46441-2)
  Recorded: 17th, 19th April 1966, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 5th August 1966 (LP "Revolver")
US-release: 20th June 1966 (LP "Yesterday ... And Today")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note While "Doctor Robert's" most conspicuous claim to infamy may be its oblique-yet-obvious reference to recreational drug usage, it is musically most interesting for its harmonic/home-key trickery.
  Next note I am also quite fond of the incongruity of the Christmas-Carol type of arrangement given to the refrain, but I reiterate that the game played here with the home key is (in my humble opinion, of course) one of John's more daring experiments with harmony this side of "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "I Am The Walrus". You might want to think of it as an "harmonic hallucination," that (intentionally placed here for this reason or not) is ironic in context of the song's lyrics.
  Next note The lyrics make constant wordplay with the title phrase; mostly as an interjection at the end of lines, but also, for the sake of avoiding foolish consistency, you find it surprisingly fitting in within the flow of the narrative just once in a while, and, best of all, you also find it popping up at the start of lines, where you'd least expect it.
  Next note Overall, the song feels a bit "slight" in terms of its short form, lack of an instrumental break, and no variation of the arrangement later than the first refrain. It's interesting to contemplate how one's perception of the "size" of a song is related as much to matters of formal and instrumental complexity, as it is to temporal duration.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note In the final analysis, I believe that B Major clearly asserts itself as the home key of this song, but that opening on the A chord, which is sustained so nonchalantly for a full eight measures, has a funny way of getting things off to a tonally equivocal start.
  Next note True, you can establish a sense of home key by droneful insistence of a single chord, but one of the hallmarks of so-called "Western Tonal Music" is the establishment of home keys by virtue of chord progressions. In this song, the first real cadence in the song is the one to B-Major towards the end of the verse, and though as it unfolds it feels somewhat like a modulation to B from A, I truly believe that one retrospectively interprets the A-Major chord as flat-VII of B!


  Next note The backing arrangement features a relatively rich mixture of instruments, though the recording of it, to quote Lewisohn, is rather "gimmick free". By the way, I hear no piano in the mix, regardless of what Mark Lewisohn says.
  Next note There's some staggered layering in the arrangement. For example, the backing vocals start in the second verse, and the lead guitar overdubs commence just before the bridge. The bridge nicely contrasts with the verses by virtue of the added harmonium and the lush vocals mixed to sound like more than just two or three Beatles singing.
  Next note By the same token nothing new is introduced past the mid-point, and given the group's solid track record in the area of avoiding foolish consistency, it feels like a bit of a letdown when they don't do it. In contrast, consider the value added in the final verse of a song like "We Can Work It Out" where, in the same place where there always was a syncopated kick in the rhythm, they execute the phrase in rather perversely equal eighth notes.
  Next note John's lead vocal sounds automatically double tracked with each of the two slightly-out-of-phase tracks split onto separate stereo channels; this is a surrealistic "effect" we saw earlier in the "The Word".

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is a simple four-measure vamp on the A-Major chord which, at this point of the song, you'd think is the I, rather than the flat-VII.
  Next note The most significant thing about this intro is the way the lead guitar part introduces the "4-3" appoggiatura motif that shows up later in both the verse and the bridge.


  Next note The verse sounds like a relatively four-square, four-phrase song section, but there's a rhetorical blip added to the third phrase which pushes the total section length up to eighteen measures:
       --------------- 2X ----------------
      |A       |-       |-       |-       |
   B:  flat-VII

      |F#      |-       |-       |-       |-       |-       |

      |E       |F#      |B       |-       |
       IV       V        I

   [Figure 100.1]
  Next note The "4-3" melodic motif shows up here in the third phrase, on the syllables, "bet-ter" and "un-der"(stand).


  Next note The refrain sounds like a predictable eight-measure, two-phrase song section, but very similarly to the verse, it rhetorically rounds itself out to an unusual ten measures, the final two of which elide with the start of the next verse.
      |B       |-       |E       |B       |
   B:  I                 IV       I

      |B       |-       |E       |-       |A       |-       |
                         IV                flat-VII

   [Figure 100.2]
  Next note The E-Major chord of the first phrase sounds unequivocally like IV, but in the second phrase it sounds rather like the V-of-flat-VII; think about it ...
  Next note The "4-3" motif here is found on the second of the three "well, well, wells."


  Next note The official track is mastered to sound as though it were a typical fade-out ending, but if you listen carefully, it appears that the take in the studio may have broken down just where the track is quickly faded. Note how when they reach the F# chord in this final verse, the vocals drop out and the rhythm track moves back to B long before six measures of F# have elapsed.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Something subtle but nice was lost when "Doctor Robert" was pulled from the American "Revolver" album.
  • "For No One" is in the key of B.
  • "I Want To Tell You" is in the key of A.
  • "Doctor Robert" is in the key of B, but it tries to trick you into thinking it might be at least partially in the key of A.
  Next note As such, it effects an interesting harmonic transition between the songs which surround it. Alas, when you put the song on "Yesterday and Today", the effect is lost.
  Alan (030595#100)
Copyright © 1995 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.