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notes on ...

Notes on "I'll Be Back"


Notes on ... Series #19.0 (IBB.0)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major / a minor
     Meter: 4/4
        CD: "A Hard Day's Night", Track 13 (Parlophone CDP7 46437-2)
  Recorded: 1st June 1964, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 10th July 1964 (LP "A Hard Day's Night")
US-release: 15th December 1964 (LP "Beatles '65")
  Next note The poignant bitter-sweetness of "I'll Be Back" stems in large part from its obvious yet equally effective gambit of shifting constantly back and forth between the Major and minor modes of A. There'll be more to say about this before the end but as usual, you find much more than just this one gambit in a detailed walk-through of the song.


  Next note Schematically, we have the following:
   Intro | Verse | Bridge 1 | Verse | Bridge 2 | Verse |
         | Bridge 1 | Verse | Outro
  Next note It's nominally straightforward but, as usual, there are a few intriguing facets:
  • Most unusual is the total of three bridge sections, the middle one of which is musically different from the outer two, even though it bears some resemblance to the others.
  • The intro, at first blush, would seem almost negligible in its scant two-measure length, but is crucial for the way its being in A Major sets the surprise-trap for the verse which follows beginning in a minor. I find it rather sublime to contemplate how what you come to later recognize as the central personality trait of this song is presented so neatly encapsulated right off at the start.
  • The outro, of course, recapitulates this same notion. For a change, the standard device of a looped figure repeating into a fade-out actually is of "programmatic" significance to the extent that it helps us visualize our hero heading off into the metaphorical sunset with the most exquisitely ambivalent feelings in his heart.
  Next note We also have here yet another one of our examples of an avoidance of foolish consistency — the final verse is truncated to half of its normal length. It's a good example of formalistic fine tuning. While it wouldn't be the end of the world to leave this last verse just like the others, when you consider the cumulative duration of the song caused by the preceding three verses plus three bridges, it's probably a good thing the Boys decided to not keep us. Play it out in your head with a full final verse and see for yourself if you start getting a tad antsy or not.


  Next note Aside from the immediate introduction of the Major/minor gambit, the other noteworthy feature here is the open pickup figure on acoustic guitar. This little figure (F# -» B -» E -» C#) is used in happy repetition throughout, and its melodic content and rhythmic syncopation become a mantra-like leitmotiv of the piece.
  Next note If you look at the rest of the melodic material in the song, it's interesting to note how many other similar "pickups" on the off-beat you find at the beginning of either verses or bridges (the erudite musical term for one of these is an "anacrusis" — put that one one on your resume :-)):
  • in the verses, "you know", "cause I", "this time";
  • in the bridges, "I love you so-o", "I want to go".
  In fact, the few exceptions to this rule ("You could find", "I thought", "You, if") stick out the more so in contrast. (By the way, the almost strict alternation of "You" and "I" at the beginning of each section is yet another one of the simpler pleasures one eventually uncovers in this song as a result of obsessive listening!)
  Next note At any rate, I would suggest that all these lyrical pickups within the song bear some associative relationship to the guitar pickup in the intro.

Verse - "You know ..." / "Cause I ..." / "You could ..." / "You, if ..."

  Next note The verses consist of two repetitions of the same six-measure phrase; more precisely, a four-measure phrase with two trailing measures of "space":
      |a       |G**     |F**     |E       ||A       |-       |
   a:  I        VII      VI       V         I#3

   [Figure 19.1]
  [** My labels for the G and F chords are tentative because the arrangement, true to style, presents these chords with liberally added sixths and sevenths which are difficult to represent accurately just from listening to the recording. As always, I'd appreciate it if someone with the sheet music would post what's written there.]
  Next note In spite of the strong pull of the descending bassline, the harmonic shape of the verse is decidedly closed, beginning and ending squarely in A. Curiously, the alternation between minor and Major has no effect on one's perception of this closed-off feeling. The virtually unchanging harmonic rhythm of one-chord-per-measure only reinforces this further, in spite of the syncopation in the voice parts.
  Next note The vocal arrangement of the verses uses rather simple parallel thirds sung by John and Paul throughout (the liner notes to the album imply that George is in there as well, but I don't hear him) yet there are some characteristic details worthy of note. First off, there is a timbral paradox in that overall, one hears John's voice predominating in the melody, yet when you listen carefully, you note that John is on the bottom part, and that it's actually Paul on top; this phenomenon is to be found all over the place throughout their repertoire. The other savory detail is the repeated use of that sensuous little trill (pedantically speaking, a "mordent") in the third measure of each phrase; also a long-standing trademark of theirs.

First Bridge - "I love you so ..." / "I want to go ..."

  Next note This bridge opens up the harmonic architecture of the song by suggesting an excursion, however short lived, to the key of f# (which happens to be the relative minor of A). Of course, we never actually settle down firmly within the new key, heading immediately back to the V chord of A.
  Next note The varied harmonic rhythm of this bridge is another source of contrast with the surrounding verses; we even find a syncopation in the chord changes of the last two measures.
  Next note The most unusual thing about this bridge is that measure 5 is only a half-measure and this really adds a unique kick to the way one feels the phrasing of this section; by analogy, think of taking some poetry in strict meter and purposely making one of the lines two syllables short. In a pop song universe where phrases are typically four, six or eight measures in length, this one of six and a half measures really grabs your attention:
      |f#      |-       |b       |-       |E**   |D   E   |D   E   |
   f#: i                 iv
                     A:  vi                V      IV  V    IV  V

   [Figure 19.2]
  [** half-measure]
  Vocally, we switch here to just John double-tracked.

Second Bridge - "I thought that you would realize ..."

  Next note The second bridge starts off somewhat differently from the first one, but the two sections are ultimately first cousins in that the two-and-a-half-measure ending of the first bridge is repeated here verbatim.
  Next note The harmonic shape of this bridge is even more open at first than the other bridge section. Though we never settle in any key away from A, I feel the first five or six measures of this section as being on the prowl as far as key is concerned:
      |b     |-     |c#    |-     |f#    |B      |b6    |E ... etc.
   A:  ii            iii           vi     V-of-V  ii**   V

   [Figure 19.3]
  [** D in the bass]
  Next note Two other subtle details worth noting:
  • Running from the downbeat of measure 1 through the downbeat of measure 3, we have a real Lennonesque descending chromatic line in an inner voice (B -» B-flat -» A -» G#); clearly the man really liked this device.
  • There's also an exotically tangy cross relation of the D# in the B-Major chord (measure 6) with the D-natural of the b-minor 6/5 chord in the following measure.

Subtext Surges Eternally

  Next note After a dozen or more concentrated listenings to this song, I honestly couldn't help making the free association to a song by Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) which uses the same minor/Major gambit albeit in a more limited fashion than "I'll Be Back"; it's the first number from his song cycle "Winterreise", entitled "Gute Nacht." I offer you some excerpts from the lyrics of this song (translated from the German) and wonder if you'll gasp the way I did to discover what bitter-sweet topic was on Schubert's mind:
  Why should I remain longer, until I am driven out?
I will not disturb you in your dreams, 't were pity to spoil your rest.
You shall not hear my footsteps, softly, softly I close the door.
As I go out I will write "Goodnight" to you on the gate
so that you may see my thoughts were of you.
  Next note If you like this one, I can't hold back from sharing with you an even more unlikely lyrical correspondence between another Lennon and McCartney song and some older music. This time, we're dealing with an oft-quoted line from "I'm A Loser" ("Although I laugh and I act like a clown ...") and the title of a "virelai" (a distant forerunner of the two-minute pop song) written by Johannes Ockeghem (you won't see his name in Billboard) of the fifteenth century: "Ma bouche rit et ma pensée pleure."
  Next note Now, just hold on a second ("you promised"), I'm not suggesting that anyone has plagiarized a bloody thing here; I wouldn't even dare to suggest that either of these pieces of music were songs of our Own Sweet Boys' acquaintance. All I am trying to suggest is the extent to which certain themes of heartache appear to perpetually fascinate, not to mention inevitably become relevant to composers of music as well as "us" plain folk. To put it another way, you might say that great minds run in the same direction.
  Alan (070490#19.0)
Copyright © 1990 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.