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Notes on "The Fool On The Hill"


Notes on ... Series #123 (FOTH)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Refrain |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Refrain | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Magical Mystery Tour", Track 2 (Parlophone CDP7 48062-2)
  Recorded: 25th-27th September 1967, Abbey Road 2;
            20th October 1967, Abbey Road 3
UK-release: 8th December 1967 (2-EP "Magical Mystery Tour")
US-release: 27th November 1967 (LP "Magical Mystery Tour")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This song surely belongs in McCartney's top drawer. On one level, it is one of his most explicit efforts in the evocative direction of the Early Romantic (nineteenth century) "art song". Yet, on another level, it can also be described as an intriguing fusion of the sort that is arguably one of Paul's specialties of the house.
  Next note The form is completely flat (no pejorative connotations, please) with four uninterrupted iterations of the verse-and-refrain sections. This ballad form is equally at home in both folk music as well as the art song; for examples of the latter, browse through Schubert's cycle, "Die Schöne Müllerin". For examples of the former, see anything by Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, or any song on "Blonde on Blonde", with the exception, of course, of "I Want You (So Bad)" (how's that for a Beatles / Dylan cross-pollination!!), "Just Like A Woman", and maybe one or two others.
  Next note Lyrically, the song explores some of the same themes of lonely, alienated isolation covered in the likes of "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Leaving Home". Whereas the earlier songs for the most part merely suggest the inner lives, thoughts and feelings of their protagonists through attention to tell-tale, albeit painfully mundane details, we find the attention focused here almost exclusively on the main character's inner life, with the external references having become vague and abstract. Contrast, for example, Father MacKenzie's darning of socks with the unnamed "man of a thousand voices".

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melodies of both verse and refrain feature nice melodic arches. The refrain tops out on F-natural (on the first syllable of "spinning") whereas the verse tops out ever so slightly higher on F# (on the first word of the phrase "know him").
  Next note Poignancy in the song is intensified by a number of juicy appoggiaturas of the sort that Paul always liked:
   - D-D-C#-A-B          "grin is keeping per-..."
  Technically, speaking, this one is an "echapée" or "escape" tone. Note how the C# wraps around the B to which it will resolve by first "escaping" down to A.
   - B-E-E-E-D-F#-E      "nobody wants to know him ..."
  This is a garden variety "6-5" leaning tone.
   - E-F-E-D             "word spinning round ..."
  A "9-8" leaning tone spiced up by the melodic line's going up to F before allowing the dissonant E to resolve to D
  Next note The verse is in D Major; the refrain in d minor. This alternation between parallel Major and minor keys is a venerable "cliché" of the Early Romantic school of composers. The Beatles, too, had always liked it. Look back for early parallels in the likes of "Things We Said Today" and "I'll Be Back".
  Next note The early two examples differ from our current song in that they transition from minor to Major, rather than the other way around. This is a significant variation, "historically" speaking. The classical models for this home key gambit are so heavily weighted toward the minor-to-Major strategy, that the rare examples of the opposite tack (Major-to-minor) elicit comment.
  Next note For examples of the former, look at Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies where the shift to the Major mode for the final movements provides an aesthetic paradigm for expressing ultimate victory over monumentally tragic suffering. For an example of the latter, see Mendelsohn's "Italian" symphony where the shift to the minor mode for the final movement, a breakneck-paced Saltarello, no less, in relentlessly fast triplets, provides an enigmatically demonic ending to a piece that had opened up with equally relentless fast triplets in the Major mode, connoting a kind of unbridleable youthful energy and optimism.
  Next note Perhaps, for McCartney, the difference between these two harmonic strategies reflects the same difference between the conscious bitter-sweetness of unrequited love (in the earlier songs) and the questionable paradise of oblivious, lonesome foolishness (in the latter).
  Next note A detail in the harmony that smirkingly reminds you that this is so-called "popular" music is the number of added sixth and gratuitous seventh chords.


  Next note The finished track incorporates a large number of instruments in a busy manner typical of the period immediately following the "Sgt. Pepper" album. The flute and recorder parts deserve special mention.
  Next note The use of an instrumental section in which the vocal parts resume in the second half has its Beatles' precedents as far back as "From Me To You".
  Next note Paul's lead vocal is single tracked in the verses and double tracked in the refrains.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note Two outtakes of this song are now available on the second "Anthology" CD: the plain piano self-accompaniment demo, widely available before for years on bootlegs, as well as a half-finished studio take that is close-but-no-cigar in comparison to the finished track.
  Next note Both outtakes feature a four-measure intro in which syncopated eighth note motion plays a role from the beginning and a minor-to-Major harmonic gambit (the reverse of what actually appears in the body of the song) is immediately exposed and repeated.
  Next note The official version contains a one-measure intro; with just a plain four-in-the-bar plodding away on the I-added-sixth chord, and any hints of a Major/minor mode shift kept mum until it actually occurs. Similarly, there is no appearance, yet, of the eighth-note motion which underlies the remainder of the song.
  Next note The wisdom of revising one's draft material after it has sat unexamined for a bit of time after the drafting proper and/or the seasoned hand of Mr. George Martin are to be inferred from this example.


  Next note The verse is an unusual seven measures long with its final phrase truncated so that it elides with the start of the refrain:
      |D             |G6/4          |D             |G added 6th  |
   D:  I              IV             I              IV

      |e      A      |D      b      |e      A      |
       ii     V       I      vi      ii     V

   [Figure 123.1]
  Next note The harmony of the first four measures is suspended over a pedal point in the manner of a Bach prelude; refer to "Eight Days A Week" for an uncanny precedent. If you buy this, I think you'll agree with me that the chord in the fourth measure is G-Major (6/4) with an added sixth, rather than an e-minor seventh in the fourth (4/2) inversion.
  Next note Once the pedal point ends, the harmonic rhythm is doubled for the second half of this section.
  Next note Whatever potential monotony might be caused by the flat form here is lightened up by the many small variations in the instrumentation from section to section, as well as the use of half-instrumental forms of the verse in the second half of the song. With respect to the latter, you almost don't notice, immediately, that those break sections are, indeed, so closely patterned on the verse.


  Next note The refrain is only four measures long with one additional measure tacked on to bridge back to the next verse:
      |d g     d     |B-flat        |C             |d             |
   d:  i iv6/4 i      VI6/3          flat-VII       i

      |D             |
   D:  I

   [Figure 123.2]
  Next note The mode changes abruptly to minor as we enter the refrain, and the effect is quite chilling; like the sun suddenly "going in" on an otherwise lovely sunny day. The switch back to Major is, in fact, not dealt with as suddenly; the extra solitary measure at the end here gives you a chance to adjust to the change before the next verse begins.
  Next note Rhythmic activity and harmonic rhythm subtly increase from the intro of the song up through the start of the refrain. The intro has only those block quarter notes, the verse introduces the rocking eighth note rhythm in the piano part though the harmonic rhythm remains slow at first, picking up in the second half; the harmonic rhythm finally reaching its fastest single moment at the start of the refrain over a reprise of the pedal point. The assertion of a rigid march beat in the final two verses, in spite of the continuation of rocking eighth notes in the background nicely balances out the first half of the piece.


  Next note The outro contains no new material, but rather fades out over one last repeat of the half-instrumental verse section.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Over the course of the 1967/'68 season, the Beatles garnered a special notoriety for their rich, extravagant production values; beyond a point it became somehow "expected" of them to deliver on this point. The handful of acoustic numbers on the "White Album" aside, I think we can agree that a completely, 100% unplugged, "The Beatles" album would have been unthinkable at the time.
  Next note And yet, you can only marvel at how such Classic, Romantic elegance is achieved in the likes of our current song by simple means, in spite of the elaborate arrangement. The simple demo acetate of this song along with all the other home and studio demos of this period drive home the point in spades.
  Alan (122396#123)
Copyright © 1996 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.