alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "I'm A Loser"


Notes on ... Series #57 (IAL)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: G Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Solo Break (half-Verse + Refrain) |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Beatles For Sale", Track 2 (Parlophone CDP7 46438-2)
  Recorded: 14th 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 For a rock song, this one contains a stronger blend of folk elements than almost anything else the Beatles had done to-date.
  Next note Apart from the semi-acoustic arrangement, we have a form which (with the exception of the break and outro) presents a ballad-like straight alternation of verse and refrain. The lyrics are different for each verse and imply a kind of narrative that is told in second person direct address, and ends on a cliché moral note ("... pride comes be-fore a fall..."). We'll come across even more details supportive of this thesis as we do our walk-through below.
  Next note The most unusual formal touch here is the instrumental break section that is a hybrid half-verse plus refrain. However, the ad-lib intro and recapitulation of the break that occurs in the outro are both also noteworthy.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melody is closer to the Mixolydian mode than it is bluesy, with the Major third (B) and flattened seventh (F) consistently emphasized in the verses. The naturally occurring Major seventh (F#) occurs only in the refrain section along with the sixth degree of the scale (E) which is emphasized there after having been withheld entirely during the verses. I'll grant you that virtually no composer plans out such consistency in any kind of pre-meditated fashion, but it still fascinates me to observe how the creative mind does seem to subconsciously impose such order.
  Next note The harmony is also modal by virtue of the heavy use of the flat-VII chord throughout. The continual juxtaposition of the flat-VII (F-Major) to the V chord (D-Major) in this song makes for a tangy cross relation between the F-natural of the one chord with the F# of the other.
  Next note The harmonic diet is otherwise straightforward and limited. There is a small number of chords involved overall, and the whole thing is strictly in G Major with not even the least hint of modulation or other gambit; yet another aspect of the song which suggests the folk style.


  Next note The details of the arrangement seem more carefully organized than usual toward maximizing contrast between the verses and refrains. In the verses, John sings a single tracked solo, the bassline is in a predominantly four-in-the-bar oompah pattern, and the percussion is quietly restrained. For the refrains, John is double tracked and joined by Paul's harmonizing above him, the bassline is walking, and the percussion gets noisier and more sizzling.
  Next note The rhythm guitar provides a background wash containing a high level of noise from the pick being strummed across strings. The lead guitar provides its own wash of bent-note chords during the verses. This effect sounds as if it were mixed more prominently and played with an increased amount of bending during the final verse; a touch which pleasantly resonates with the analogous bent notes in the lead vocal and the harmonica solo.
  Next note John's harmonica makes its first appearance here since "I Should Have Known Better", and this time it is used more sparingly though with greater abandon.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note This is one of those relatively rare Beatles' intros that is played ad-lib and out of tempo. Formally, it turns out to be a truncated version of the refrain section:
                                 |A Tempo ----»
       ---------- 2X -----------
      |a           |D           ||F           |-     D     |
   G:  ii           V             flat-VII           V

   [Figure 57.1]
  Next note Most other songs with this kind of intro would find the complete ensemble coming in right at, or just before the "A Tempo" downbeat; here, they wait it out until the very last beats of the entire section.


  Next note The verse is sixteen measures long. Although it is harmonically built out of a fourfold repetition of the same four-measure chord progression (yet another folksy touch), the melodic phrasing creates two eight-bar couplets:
       ----------------------- 4X ------------------------
      |G           |D           |F           |G           |
   G:  I            V            flat-VII     I

   [Figure 57.2]
  Next note The tune is roughly arch-shaped with unusual and slightly awkward leaps that take John all the way down to a low G that is difficult for him to reach. By the same token, John makes the most of a bent-note D -» C appoggiatura which occurs toward the end of each verse; for example on the word "known" in the first verse.
  Next note In several places, the tune seems to go out of its way to force freely dissonant notes against the underlying chords, making for a disingenuously "primitive" impression; note especially the G's in the second half of the first couplet which clash over both the D and F chords — on the words "should" and "never" — reminiscent of something we saw back in "I'll Cry Instead".


  Next note The bridge is eight measures long and is built out of two four-measure phrases that are melodically parallel even though they are placed on top of different chord progressions. Note the subtle effect of the last measure of this section, the only place in the entire song where the harmonic rhythm quickens beyond one chord change per measure:
    ------------- 2X --------------
   |a7             |D              |G               |e           |
    ii              V               I                vi

   |a              |F        D     |
    ii              flat-VII V

   [Figure 57.3]
  Next note The verse had been harmonically static and closed in shape, and this refrain, even without any kind of modulatory tendency, makes a nice contrast in the way that it starts away from the I chord and ends up on the V chord, thereby providing motivation for the section which follows.
  Next note The tendency we observed in the verse toward free dissonance between melody and harmony is continued here as well; the most striking example being at the beginning of the second phrase — E over the G chord and D over the e chord on the two syllables of "loser" respectively.
  Next note Paul drops out of his supporting vocal role for the last half-phrase of this section leaving John's solo exposed again. It's an elegant and dramatically convincing touch though, as we learn from the early studio outtakes, it was not originally planned this way. If it were not for Paul's continual difficulty in finding an acceptable counterpoint solution for those last couple bars, it's possible if not likely that he would have sung the whole way through.

Break (Harmonica and Guitar Solo)

  Next note This break is sixteen measures long and is pieced together from the first eight measures of the verse plus a complete refrain. This strategy may be argued as "necessary" to the extent that the entire verse by itself would make a poor basis for a break because of its static structure, while the refrain by itself would not work well as a break section if you are forced to choose between placing it immediately following a sung refrain, or following a verse in place of a sung refrain. Run these options in your head and think it over.
  Next note Again we find still more melodic dissonance against the harmony in both harmonica and guitar parts. This effect tends to accentuate one's sense of Dylan's influence on the proceedings.
  Next note The percussion reaches its sizzling peak during this break; a fact you almost don't realize till the smoke slowly clears, so to speak, over the course of the first phrase of the next verse.


  Next note The outro provides a virtually note-for-note recap of the break section albeit one faded out in mid-course.
  Next note Ringo inserts an elaborate fill (the only one in the entire song!) in between the first two phrases of this outro. The only problem is that it sounds as though a small but critical fractional part of a beat is missing, the end result making you feel like you've tripped over something in the dark when you hear it.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note One of the obvious stylistic trends often noted about the "For Sale" album is its much larger quotient than usual of unhappy love songs. Out of eight Lennon and McCartney originals, only "Eight Days A Week" and "Every Little Thing" strike the familiar Beatles' chord of romantic euphoria. The other six range across a fairly broad though equally conventional spectrum of from sad-to-bitter regret at one end ("I'll Follow The Sun", "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party", "Baby's In Black"), all the way to desperate confrontation at the other ("No Reply", "What You're Doing").
  Next note "I'm A Loser", though, is somewhat unique, both in terms of this general context as well as in the larger one of John's other regretful or bitter songs written to this point of his career. For the first time in this one, the focus is completely on self-blame almost to the excessive extreme of maudlin self-pity, but likewise with none of the previously familiar emphasis at all on bitter accusations.
  Next note It's become glibly fashionable to trace a certain kind of turning point in John's compositional development to the writing of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", but it seems to me that a lot of what is in that later song can already be seen emerging right here in "I'm A Loser"; even the choice of key and chords is awfully similar.
  Alan (052892#57)
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.