alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "I'll Be Back"


Notes on ... Series #19.1 (IBB.1)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major / a minor
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Bridge-1 | Verse | Bridge-2 |
                  | Verse | Bridge-1 | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        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")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  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 walkthrough of the song.
  Next note The form is deceptively familiar but, as we've often seen with other songs, it reveals an uncommon design upon closer look. Most unusual here 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 them.
  Next note 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.
  Next note 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 The lyrics of the four verses make a pattern of ABBA', with the middle two identical, and the final one being an abridged variation of the first one.
  Next note Rhythmically, the largest number of phrases begin with a pickup before the downbeat. The erudite musical term for one of these is an 'anacrusis' — drop that one casually at your next party :-) To wit:
  • "you know",
  • "'cause I",
  • "this time"
  • "I love you so-o"
  • "I want to go"
  Next note The few exceptions to this rule where a phrase begins right on the downbeat stick out all the more so in contrast:
  • "You could find"
  • "You, if"
  • "I thought",
  Next note 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.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melody sticks throughout within a surprisingly restricted range but is also marked by frequent appoggiaturas. The verses feature the c-natural / c-sharp switch over. The bridges feature dramatically sustained long notes alternating with patches that are more rapidly syllabic.
  Next note The verses harmonically feature a downward chord stream based on the natural minor scale. All of the bridge sections exploit the contrasting choices available from the parallel Major scale.


  Next note The arrangement is dominated by the percussive sound of acoustic rhythm guitars, lightly accompanied by maraca-like drumming.
  Next note The primary source of textural relief is found in the vocals. Parallel thirds in the verses alternate with solo, albeit doubletracked, John in the bridges.
  Next note The acoustic strumming is predominantly foursquare yet you find a small snippet of their much-beloved slow triplets in the majority of the verse sections in the measure that has the F-Major chord.

Anthology Outtakes

  Next note Takes 2 and 3 of "I'll Be Back" are one of the highlights of Anthology 1.
  Next note Take 2 is surprisingly arranged in a 3/4 waltz tempo, features at least one electric rhythm guitar plus a lot of cymbals on the backing track, has no intro, and breaks down in the middle of the second bridge ("too hard to sing").
  Next note Take 3 is in 4/4 and the arrangement sounds closer to the finished product though they hadn't yet lost the electric rhythm guitar. This is a relatively complete take though there is still no outro, and in place of what eventually be the final verse, they loop the ending of the third bridge into a fade-out.
  Next note You can hear John's solo, single tracked voice, always so thrilling, in the bridge sections of both takes.
  Next note Lewisohn remarks on the speed with which they appear in this session to quickly abandon the original plan to do this song in 3/4 and work it up alternatively in 4/4. I wonder though if maybe the song was planned to be in 4/4 from the beginning and that take 2 was a last minute alternate tryout in 3/4. Only the complete session tape will tell for sure. My hunch here is prompted by the fact that the 4/4 version of take 3 sounds suspiciously too polished up compared to the previous 3/4 take. Keep in mind that the length of the entire 6/1/64 recording session for this song was only three hours and encompassed 16 takes. If they didn't already have the 4/4 arrangement well in the bag at the start of the session I'm skeptical how they could have worked it up on the spot and still have had time for all the rest of the takes in less than three hours.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is two measures long with a two-beat pickup from the guitar hook and it immediately exposes the Major/minor gambit with the start of the first verse:
      3 & 4 & |
              |A           |-     a ...
   A:          I                  i

   [Figure 19.1]
  Next note That little four-note hook (f# - b - e - c#) is used in happy repetition throughout, and its melodic content and rhythmic syncopation become a mantra-like leitmotiv for the song.
  Next note In its first appearance here at the start, the hook provides us with an example of the more gut-wrenching variety of syncopation on "4-and;" i.e. the one where the following downbeat is specifically not clearly marked. Interestingly, the downbeat is marked everywhere else the hook appears.


  Next note The verses consist of two repetitions of the same six-measure phrase. More precisely it is a four-measure phrase with two trailing measures of "space":
Soprano: |C                 C  D  |E     E     D     B     |
   Alto: |A                 A  B  |C     C     B     G     |
   Bass: |A                       |G                       |
 Chords: |a                       |G                       |
      a:  i                        flat-VII
                                   6    --»    5
                                   4    --»    3

Soprano: |C                    C  |C     B     A     B  C# |
   Alto: |A                    A  |A     G#    F#    G# A  |
   Bass: |F                       |E                       |
 Chords: |F                       |E                       |
          flat-VI                  V
                                   6 -»  5 -»  4 -»  5
                                   4 -»  3 -»  2 -»  3

Soprano: |(C#)                    |-                       |
   Alto: |(A)                     |-                       |
   Bass: |A                       |-                       |
 Chords: |A                       |-                       |

   [Figure 19.2]
  Next note In spite of the strong pull of the descending bass line, 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 tune creates a short chain of 6 -» 5 and 4 -» 3 suspensions against the baseline. It is in this spirit that I notate only a single chord in measures 2 and 4 rather than an actual root chord change. Yes, I understand how the suspension creates what is, de-facto, a C-Major chord — in second inversion — in the first half of measure 2, but the sustaining of the baseline through the measure robs you of any sense of root movement between the two halves of the measure.
  Next note The "4-and" syncopation of the guitar hook is carried through to the vocals in measure 4, where they anticipate the music's shift to the Major mode an eighth note ahead of the downbeat of measure.
  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 longstanding trademark of theirs.

Bridge-1 — "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# minor — 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 4, 6 or 8 measures in length, this one of 6.5 measures really grabs your attention:
       |f#      |-       |b       |-       |E   |D   E   |D   E   |
   f#:  i                 iv
                       A: vi                V    IV  V    IV  V

   [Figure 19.3]
  Next note The tune here features three appoggiaturas in close order all using the same two notes, C# and B, but in each case, the harmonic context is different; in measure 3 (9 -» 8) in the half-measure 5 (6 -» 5), measure 6 (7 -» 6 -» 5).

Bridge-2 — "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 2.5 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#      |-       |
   A:  ii                iii

      |f#      |B       |b6      |E ... etc.
       vi       V-of-V   ii       V
                         D in the bass
   [Figure 19.4]
  Next note 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.
  Next note 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.
  Next note We find still more juicy appoggiaturas. The E -» D (4 -» 3) example at the beginning of the section is one of the most climactic moments in the entire song. Similarly, we have another C# -» B (9 -» 8) example in measure 6.


  Next note The final verse is extended a seventh measure with the A-Major chord sustained, after which the outro, proper, commences.
  Next note The outro features the Major/minor gambit in a short loop of two measures for each mode. The complete fade out sets in sooner than you realize, though with the strong implication that the alternation itself may go on indefinitely.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Subtext surges externally. 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 in curious anticipation of the final track on the White Album, "Gute Nacht."
  Next note 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 bittersweet topic was on Schubert's mind:
  Why should I remain longer, until I am driven out ?
I will not disturb you in your dreams, 'twere 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 Len/Mac 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 15th 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 (121000#19.1)
Revision History
070490 19.0 Original release; H.B., Cat
121000 19.1 Correct, revise, expand and adapt to series template.
Copyright © 2000 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.