alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Misery"


Notes on ... Series #29.1 (M1.1)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: C Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Please Please Me", Track 2 (Parlophone CDP7 46435-2)
  Recorded: 11th February 1963, Abbey Road 2;
            20th February 1963, Abbey Road 1
UK-release: 22nd March 1963 (LP "Please Please Me")
US-release: 22nd July 1963 (LP "Introducing The Beatles")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "Misery" is one of a group of songs from the "Please Please Me" album sadly fated for obscurity in America, where most people had no familiarity with it until Capitol released the "Early Beatles" album in spring 1965, a full two years after it was recorded. And by that point the drift of popular attention to the group was understandably tilted toward the really new material.
  Next note This obscurity is particularly unfortunate to the extent that the song's overall sound, characterized by a shuffling, "washboard" beat and spare, pseudo-acoustic instrumental texture, represents a genuine if somewhat under-appreciated facet of the group's early style.
  Next note The melody is in short phrases, punctuated by rhythm guitar obbligato figures, and the rhetorical interjections of the song's title in the lyrics.
  Next note The form is the standard two-bridge model with one verse intervening. The relatively short duration of the finished song could have easily accommodated an additional instrumental-solo verse before the second bridge, but my theory is that the closed shape of those verse sections, especially built as they are from such a limited set of chords, would have been a claustrophobic mistake that they wisely avoided.
  Next note The lyrics of the four verses form a familiar pattern of ABCC.
  Next note Three of the four verses and the refrains all begin rhythmically on the downbeat. The lone exception is the second verse ("I've lost her now"), which begins with a pickup.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The first half of the verse tune sports a jumpy pentatonic lick before the other notes of the scale make their appearance in the second half. The bridge tune is based unusually on the step-wise descent of an entire octave.
  Next note Only four chords are used. In order of appearance you have F, G, C, and 'a'; i.e., IV, V, I, and vi, respectively. The vi chord is used in this song as though it were a full-fledged sub-dominant (in the way it sets up the V chord) or even as a surrogate dominant — in the way it sometimes is inserted between the I chord on either side. Only at the beginning of the bridge is it used in its more typecast role as the relative minor, or "submediant".


  Next note The voice parts are predominantly sung in unison but there are surprise blossomings into two-part harmony, typically saved for phrase endings.
  Next note Paul uses the same sort of dotted quarter and eighth notes in the bass part that we saw in "From Me To You". This also cleverly carries forward into the bass line the same snapped rhythm that pervades the main melody of the song, as well as it rescues the bass line from would be otherwise have been a dull, unrelieved four in the bar.
  Next note The piano edit pieces in the intro and bridge are a relatively small touch, but one of no small historic interest; aside from the fracas regarding Andy White's guest drumming stint on the original version of "Love Me Do", this is likely the very first appearance of a guest performer on a Beatles track in order to provide something the Boys could not do for themselves. Granted, it's a far cry from the likes of the string quartets and solo brass instruments that would come later, but it's the same concept nevertheless.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is only four measures long (discounting the opening piano arpeggio), but it has the full essence of the rest of the song embedded within in it:
     "Adagio" ----------------» "A Tempo"
     |F       |G       |C       |a   G   ||
   C: IV       V        I        vi  V

   [Figure 29.1]
  Next note Starting off with a dramatically slow intro may have been a fairly common technique among the rest of pop/rock music, but Lennon and McCartney very rarely used it at all. Aside from the contemporaneous "Do You Want To Know A Secret", I can't even think of another example off the top of my head; something worth keeping an ear out for in the rest of our studies.
  Next note The choice of opening chord progression makes this yet another Beatles song that opens away from the home key, yet quickly converges upon it.
  Next note In the space of just these few measures were are quickly introduced to several devices that ultimately characterize and permeate the rest of the song; e.g., the unison singing which unfolds into harmony, the decorative use of the piano, and the I-vi-V chord progression.
  Next note Mark for later reference the little chromatic move in the bass line during the transition from measure 1 to 2 (F -» F# -» G).


  Next note The verse is a brief and harmonically static eight measures:
   |C       |F       |C       |F       |
    I        IV       I        IV

   |-       |G       |C       |a       ||
             V        I        iv

   [Figure 29.2]
  Next note Note how the embellishment of the F chord with "neighbor" tones of D-C-D in the guitar part lends a jazzy, added-sixth sound to the accompaniment.
  Next note In spite of the few chords used, a subtle syncopation in the harmonic rhythm is created by sustaining the same chord (i.e., F, the IV) over the two measures that straddle the mid-verse divide between measures 4 and 5.
  Next note As we saw with "From Me To You", wherever a verse if followed by yet another verse section, the final measure shifts to the vi chord instead of sustaining the I chord all the way through, as happens in verses which are followed by a bridge. I've told you there are formulaic aspects to this sort of composition.


  Next note We have another eight-measure section, one that provides the traditional contrast to the preceding verses:
   |a       |-       |C       |-       | 
    vi                I

   |a       |-       |G       |-       ||
    vi                V

   [Figure 29.3]
  Next note The harmonic rhythm is slower than the verse, and the steep scale-wise descent in the melody here is in contrast to the jumping here and about seen earlier. Some consistency with the verse is maintained in the way we still have short, declarative phrases in dotted rhythm, punctuated by the accompaniment; here the piano, instead of the guitar, provides the mimicking obbligato.
  Next note The bass line contains two uncanny details that closely unify it with what is going on elsewhere: the lead-in to the bridge begins with the same sort of chromatic lick seen in the intro (G -» G# -» A), and the lead-out of the bridge to the next verse is made up of a descending scale (G - through C), reminiscent of the vocal part.
  Next note The 'a' minor chord in the first measure of this section sounds at first as though it might be a part of a modulation to that key but it's really too short-lived to count.
  Next note Unofficial releases of outtakes 1 through 6 of this song are an apt example of both a prime kind of material not included within the scope of the Anthology and candid portrait of them operating under the stress of a series of sloppy mistakes following what otherwise sounds like a pretty clean first take. Take 6 contains typical Ringo drum fills in measures 4 and 8 of the bridges. Though nicely performed and not entirely inappropriate, my guess is that he was asked to eliminate them from the final version in order to keep unbroken the hypnotic mood of the shuffling rhythm.


  Next note This outro is built from several repeats of the last two measures of the verse into a quick fade-out.
  Next note The vocal parts burst forth in some "oohs" which are more anguished than passionate for a change, as well as some "lah-lahs." These come across as impromptu, though we find in take 1 the virtually the identical set of them as in the final version.
  Next note It is John who takes the lead in these vocal effects, and his move is all the more effective because it is the first time in the entire song that we hear a solo voice.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note This is one of the rare, early Lennon and McCartney originals in which the girl is spoken of entirely in the third person. Ironically, it appears back to back on the "Please Please Me" album with another one of these rare examples, the very upbeat "I Saw Her Standing There". The uninterrupted flowing beat of "Misery" provides some forward-looking optimism in counterpoint to the otherwise downbeat lyrics. In the context of the album lineup, I believe that this subtle hint in "Misery" of a sun concealed behind the overcast mitigates what might have otherwise been too stark of a manic-depressive contrast between those first two tracks.
  Alan (030401#1.1)
Revision History
072991 29.0 Original release
030401 29.1 Add second-pass observations and copy edit
Copyright © 2001 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.