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Notes on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"


Notes on ... Series #182 (IWYSSH)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: d minor
     Meter: 6/8 alternating with 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse (Instrumental) | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Outro (with cutoff ending)
        CD: "Abbey Road", Track 6 (Parlophone CDP7 46446-2)
  Recorded: 22nd February 1969, Trident Studios; 18th,
            20th April 1969, 8th 11th August 1969, Abbey Road 2/3
UK-release: 26th September 1969 (LP "Abbey Road")
US-release: 1st October 1969 (LP "Abbey Road")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is one of their most unusual experiments with form, not to mention its characteristically odd phrase lengths and changes of meter. It seems a shame that its equally unusual long running time, abrupt ending, and especially its obsessively intense focus and over the top Primal Screaming affect tend to upstage and eclipse the creative novelty of the musical text.
  Next note It's not quite a medley, rather more like two separate songs cinematically cross cut with each other. One provides the verses, while the other provides the intro, refrain, and extended outro.
  Next note The "separateness" of the two elements derives from several points of contrast:
  • Meter — 4/4 squared off jazzy back beat in the verses compared with slow cranking ternary 6/8 for the rest.
  • Arrangement — Ensemble texture with lead vocal for the verses, compared with focus on a bassline ostinato and accompanied by slow guitar arpeggios (and cascaded backing vocals in the "refrain") for the rest.
  • Perspective of the lyrics — The verses directly address the love object, while the refrain's reference her in the third person.
  Next note The dramatic pauses between the sections and the uneven phrase lengths within them recall several other of John's best work along the lines of "Strawberry Fields ...", "Good Morning ...", "Happiness ...", and "Yer Blues".
  Next note Just keep in mind, as I often remind you, that beneath all the novelty there lies a heavy foundation deeply rooted in relatively traditional hard blues.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note Overall the song is securely rooted in the home key of d minor, in spite of the unusual manner in which the verses all start off in the key of a minor ("v") before converging towards home.
  Next note The tune is predominantly in a pentatonic minor mode, encompassing scale degrees 1-3-4-5-7. The alternate verse phrases though also make effective use of the pungent flattened fifth and seventh; e.g. Ab and Cb (not to be spelled B-natural!) in the key of d.
  Next note The verses are harmonically anchored around the chords i, VI, V, and V-of-V, though there is also some uncharacteristically uncoordinated harmony used to connect them.


  Next note The arrangement and mood of the verse section is progressively intensified from one appearance to the next, a development which meshes effectively with the emergence of the always more intense intro/refrain section as the focal point of the extended outro.
  Next note The first verse opens in a halting declamatory style that belies the strict tempo that actually marches through it. The next two verses have a demur, slinking jazz beat of syncopated eighth notes. The guitar solo nicely reinforces this mood in the way it understatedly paraphrases the original tune instead of improvising upon it. In hindsight, you notice that the lead guitar actually has been roughly doubling the lead vocal the whole way through.
  Next note The final verse is given a heavier treatment, with an increased role for the lead guitar, and a literally screaming climax for the lead vocal; the latter backed by a really mysterious bit of unintelligible studio chat bleeding through.
  Next note The refrains feature ornate riffing filigree in the right hand of the organ part. The "She So Heavy" demi title phrase that leads into it is scanned differently against the meter in almost every case. In the final iteration which introduces the outro, the final word "heavy" is suspensefully dispensed with; the latter, a very clever, crafty detail.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note This brief five-measure passage in 6/8 meter introduces us to a phrase ultimately destined to dominate the track, but at this point we're not supposed to know that; yet another kind of "Abbey Road" foreshadwing gesture, this time within a single track!
      |d       |-       |E9/7    |Bb7     |A-aug.  |
   d:  i                 V-of-V   VI       V

   [Figure 182.1]
  Next note The harmonic shape is open to yet another Augmented V chord; resonant shades of the "Oh! Darling" intro. The odd five-measure length combined with the deferred resolution of V-of-V conspire to keep you off balance.
  Next note All appearances of this phrase not followed by an immediate repeat of it end with a grand pause on the final chord, almost as if the phrase were closer to six measures instead of five.
  Next note From the opposite "unifying" perspective savor the subtle effect created by have the pitch, f-natural, sustained the whole way through the chord changes as a common tone.
  Next note The ground bass figure used here has a distinctive arch shape and portentious melodic character reminiscent of the themes of some of JS Bach's own pieces based on ground basses such as the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ in c, or the Chaconne for solo violin in d.
  Next note The arpeggio figuration accompanying the bassline anticipates similar passages in several side 2 songs on the album; e.g. "Here Comes The Sun", "Because", and the coda of "You Never Give Me Your Money".
  Next note The bassline makes a short downward chromatic move from C to Bb in the second half of measure 3, a curious mirror image of a similar move in the verse bassline.


  Next note The verse is in 4/4 and has an overall clear structure of ABA'B', but it parses into a series of strangely unequal phrase lengths, 8.5, 2, 8.5, and 6:
      |a       |-       |-       |-       |-       |-       |
   a:  i

                                **half measure
bass:  A     C     |D      F     |G   G#+ |
      |a     C     |G      F     |?   E   |
       i     III    VII6/4 IV         V

      |a           |A            |
       i            I
                d:  V

      |d       |-       |-       |-       |-       |-       |

                               **half measure
      |d     F     |C      Bb    |g  g# a |
       i     III    VII    VI     ?  ?  ?

      |E9      |-       |-       |-       |-       |-       |

   [Figure 182.2]
  Next note The opening of this section in the key of A minor is an unsettling harmonic surprise, given the intro's ending on such a fat, juicy V chord to the key of d. It's not the smoothest or most convincing transition, and your mind accepts it somewhat grudingly as "okay, I guess" but "definitely not what I was expecting." On the other hand, this all goes to make the resolution of that V chord to d minor all the more gratifying when it's ultimately allowed to happen, like whenever the outro phrase is doubled up as in the refrains.
  Next note A Minor morphs into A Major at the end of this first phrase allowing a seemingly inevitable ultimate arrival in the home key of d. The second phrase runs roughly parallel to the first one and leads into the third phrase which harmonically is very wide open on the V-of-V chord.
  Next note The chord progressions in the second half of both the first and second "A" phrases are primarily driven by the bassline which ends in each case with a small chromatic lick upward.
  Next note For some reason these passages appear imprecisely performed on the recording as if the players had a clear idea of where the phrases were headed harmonically but each took a slightly different route toward the common goal. I've labeled them out the best I can for now, but feel like these couple of measures deserve a still closer look. In the second verse, the ensemble actually sounds like it almost falls apart at one point.
  Next note Note the John Lennon signature details here of ending the "A" phrases with a limping half measure, and the slow triplets filling that half measure in the second "A" phrase.
  Next note We find arpeggios again in this section, this time for the bass riffing under the E9 chord at the end.


  Next note The refrains are formally "AA" doublings up of the intro phrase and weigh in at ten measures long.


  Next note The outro consists of just short of fourteen complete iterations in a row of the intro with the final one cut short at the second eighth note of the final measure. This presentation of a short riff in many iterations is an idea that will reappear in more than one song on side 2; e.g. again, the coda of "... Your Money", the bridge between "... Pam" and "...Bathroom Window", and the series of guitar solos in "The End".
  Next note The mood increases ever so slightly but surely over the course of the section, primarily the results of uninhibited drumming and generally noisy recording haze that emerge starting after the first several repeats.
  Next note The particular placement of the cutoff reflects some uncanny compositional knowledge and experience. Run all the alternative versions through in your head and see for yourself. The official choice they made is at the sweet spot between the two extremes of too obvious or too unsettling.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note With the exception of "Revolution #9" this very well may be the single longest Beatles track in the canon. At 7:43 it is at least a half minute longer than "Hey Jude", with which it makes for an interesting contrast and comparison, by the way.
  Next note Both songs have extremely long outros that split the overall track into two large sections that are in roughly "Golden Section" proportion to each other.
  Next note But whereas "Hey Jude" reserves completely different material for the second half and is also durationally weighted in its favor, the coda material of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is modally compatible with the rest of the song, is exposed from the start, reiterated twice as a refrain within the body of the song proper, and the overall track is durationally weighted toward the first half. Without such front-end ballast the overall track would badly suffer from overexposure of the intro phrase. I expect there are "enemies" of this song who claim the latter problem exists with the track even as it now stands.
  Next note The two songs make very different dramatic use of their extended outros, with "Hey Jude" fading out very gradually to a complete vanishing point, and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" maintaining and even increasing its intensity as it unfolds. This difference directly reflects a contrast at the very core of the two songs.
  Next note You might say that both songs suggest the feeling of asymptotically approaching the limit of a particular emotional experience or state of mind. In the case of "Hey Jude", the intimation of sublime transcendence is both aptly captured by the fade-out to silence and can be contemplated in physical and aesthetic comfort.
  Next note In the case of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", the intimation of an obsession upon which the mind zooms in, pushing on irresistably, way past the point of comfort, very likely toward a breaking point or beyond, aesthetically defies a successful literal musical treatment. A drawn out and extreme crescendo might be apt but it sure won't be "pretty". The alternative abrupt cutoff works better on the level of less-is-more. In some ways that cutoff more strongly suggests an after hours, offstage moment of crash and burn than any attempt that could have been made to perform it explicitly as part of the album track.
  Alan (112699#182)
Copyright © 1999 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.