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Notes on "Mean Mr Mustard"


Notes on ... Series #186 (MMM)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse' (segue al subito)
        CD: "Abbey Road", Track 11 (Parlophone CDP7 46446-2)
  Recorded: 24th, 25th July 1969, Abbey Road 2;
            29th July 1969, Abbey Road 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 "Mean Mr Mustard" is more a "discontinued fragment," than a "bonsai miniature," and I say that without intending any pejorative connotations. In context the song makes an excellent fit of form-to-function. Following on the heels of the more substantial and self-contained previous two songs this one critically needs to pick up the pace and get the show on the road, medley-wise. In this case, the short track length, incomplete form, and the tighter, smoother coupling of the track at both ends to the songs that surround it seem as a group of factors to work out just right.
  Next note The tempo of "Mean Mr Mustard" is essentially identical to that of "Sun King", at least up until the final phrases, but the switch of backbeat from something that lazily flows to a painfully lumbering march that alternates with more syncopated material disguises that fact.
  Next note Amazingly, no matter how awkwardly John is caught up with here, compositionally on the run, so to speak, we find him making the effort, expending the bandwidth to work in odd phrase lengths, more mosaic tiling, and a metric modulation. It's not fair to call this just a throwaway.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The pattering tune is based almost entirely on the downward melodic motif of a step followed by a third. The first phrase uses the motif in a scalebased downward sequence. Balancing upward motion is provided in the other two phrases by presenting the motif from a variety of higher locations in the scale.
  Next note Only four different chords are used, with the predictable I and V being supplemented by flat-IV and flat-VII, both of which are arguably borrowed here from the "natural" parallel minor mode of the home key.


  Next note The backing track is dominated by bass, drums, and guitars and is mastered as a bit of a wall of sound, at least by Beatles standards. Note especially the extra measure of heft provided by Paul's often playing a pair of eighth notes on the downbeats of his tuba-like bass part instead of a plain quarter note.
  Next note Shades of a relatively earlier period of the group, we find a tambourine that waits until measure 4 to enter but then stays through for the duration.
  Next note John has the ADT lead vocal to himself for the start of the first verse with Paul harmonizing with him at the third starting in the final phrase and staying on with it for the remainder.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note Two beats of snare drum preceded by a tiny grace note roll leverage the second half of "Sun King"'s final measure to start this one. It's not much of an "intro" per se but it does clevery manage to bridge the two songs literally without missing a beat.
  Next note The link between "... Money" and "Sun King", based on a long fade-out of the first of the two songs, is much less determinate by contrast.


  Next note The verse is an unusual fourteen-measure paragraph whose inner structure is 4 + 6 + 4:
      |E           |-           |-           |-           |
   E:  I

                    1 2 3& 4  & |1            1 2 3&  4 & |
Bass:              |B    C C# D |-           |-    C# C B |
      |B           |-           |D           |-           |
   E:  V                         flat-VII

      |-           |
      |B           |-           |

      |E     C     |B           |E     C     |B           |
       I    flat-VI V            I    flat-VI V

   [Figure 186.1]
  Next note The first four-measure phrase is composed straight through though it is based on the sequencing of a motif. The other two phrases are tiled; the middle one A-B-A and the final one C-C.
  Next note The bassline in the middle phrase makes a syncopated up and down chromatic approach to the D chord in the middle and the following B chord at the end, placing the arrival of those two chords just before their downbeats, and thus drawing added attention to the harmonic cross relations created by the chord changes.
  Next note The cross relation idea is further developed in the third phrase by the use of flat-VI.


  Next note The second verse is musically identical to the first one except for a straightforward but still quite clever metrical modulation in the third phrase. John was no stranger to odd time signatures or throwing an oddly metered measure or two into the middle of a song. But here we find something much more like the metrical gear shifting demonstrated by George in "I Me Mine" and "Here Comes The Sun".
  Next note In this song, with the underlying eighth note pulse held constant, the meter shifts from 4/4 into 6/8 for the final four measures. As a result, the chords change ever three eighth note pulses instead of every four. This creates a double-edged time warp kind of acceleration effect:
  • The chord changes suddenly increase in frequency for the last line of the current song.
  • Furthermore the 3/8 harmonic rhythm is smoothly leveraged as the new (and faster) duration of a half measure (== 4/8) for the following song. As a result, what starts in "Mean Mr Mustard" as a tempo where the half note = 60, is then seemlessly upshifted to half note = 80 for "Polythene Pam". Run the arithmetic details on your own and call me in the morning if you still have a headache :-).
  Next note The transition out of "Mean Mr Mustard" into "Polythene Pam" is even more tightly coupled than the inbound one from "Sun King". Here, the bassline of the final measure uses the familiar chromatic upward lick to land on a D-Major chord which in this case triggers the double plagal cadence that begins the next song:
                4  5  6  1  2  3  4   1 ....
Bass:           B  C  C#
      |B                 D     A     |E ....
   E:  V                 flat- IV     I

   [Figure 186.2]

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note There's a couple of early runthroughs of "Mean Mr Mustard" dating from the Twickenham film sessions of 1/70 worth chasing down. If nothing else they are tantalizingly suggestive yet inconclusive with respect to the questions of when was it that John decided to leave "Mean Mr Mustard" in its apparently fragmentary state, and when did he first conceive of "Mean Mr Mustard" and "Polythene PamP" as immediate siblings.
  Next note Both outtakes feature the two verses we're familiar with. Where the first one actually goes into a IV -» I based chorus using the song title for lyrics, the second one merely continues with a third verse section with John scat singing instead of singing words. It's tempting to conclude from this that the song, indeed, never existed in any form that is substantively longer than what we know as the official version.
  Next note As far as the "Polythene Pam" connection goes, neither of these "Mean Mr Mustard" outtakes features the metrical modulation. And my favorite detail: both outtakes name the Mean One's sister as "Shirley". Again it's tempting to conclude from this that even if "Polythene Pam" was in works as a song at this early date, John had no thoughts yet of linking it with this one.
  Next note On the other hand, as any fan of John's studio personna as manifested on countless bootlegs and anthologies would likely agree, even if "Polythene Pam" already did exist at this time AND he was already talking about linking it with "Mean Mr Mustard", the "Shirley" references would be an ever so typical example of his being comically peverse. So much for conclusions.
  Alan (122699#186)
  See also: The "Abbey Road" Medley
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.