alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "No Reply"


Notes on ... Series #8.1 (NR.1)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: C Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Outro
        CD: "Beatles For Sale", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46438-2)
  Recorded: 30th September 1964, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 4th December 1964 (LP "Beatles For Sale")
US-release: 15th December 1964 (LP "Beatles '65")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note The intense and complex emotionality of "No Reply" comes as much from its construction as it does from the screaming, double-tracked lead vocal. We'll do an end-to-end run-through but be forewarned to keep your eye on the third phrase of the verse in particular.
  Next note The overall form is compact. There is only one bridge which is followed by only one verse. The bridge is noteworthy in that is the same length as the verses; a full sixteen measures.
  Next note The form is curiously similar to that of "Day Tripper" but for different reasons. In "Day Tripper", we saw a bridge so climactic that a repeat would have been an anti-climax. In "No Reply", the bridge provides relief from the intensity and dramatic shape of the verses. The issue here is not so much that the bridge can't be repeated as much as it is that we couldn't handle more than three verses without feeling burnt out. Play out the two-bridge variations in your head in which either one or even two more verses intervene between them and you'll see what I mean.
  Next note The lyrics for the three verses form an ABB pattern. I suspect the reason for not repeating the first verse at the end (i.e. ABA) in this case is because the title phrase, first heard in verse A reappears the bridge. The use of a rhyme scheme that crosses stanza boundaries (i.e. "your face" and "my place") was on their minds from early on based on the horsing around with the word "face" on the "Anthology" outtakes of the song, and curiously reminds me of Dylan in a way.
  Next note All phrasing of all sections here is with pickups that precede the downbeat. As a side of effect of this, many of the phrases have rests of a full measure or longer at their ends. The latter creates an undercurrent in which the listener feels as if the singer is dramatically pausing to let his individual points sink in before proceeding in each case. Note how "She Loves You", the other song in this category we've looked at so far fills in what would otherwise be these dead spots with its yeah-yeah-yeah's, which function as much as an obbligato to the tune as they are part of the tune per se.
  Next note The placement of such an unhappy love song in the all-important slot of album opener, followed no less by two more downbeat originals in the form of "I'm A Loser" and "Baby's In Black", was unprecedented for the Beatles, and would, in the long run, turn out to be unique. By contrast, "With the Beatles" opens with an upbeat trio of "It Won't Be Long", "All I've Got To Do", and "All My Loving"; providing rather an object lesson in the relative benefits of maintaining Positive Mental Attitude :-)

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune is far from being purely pentatonic but several pentatonic licks are conspicuous in the foreground. Keep your eye out for fragments taken from the descending pitch set of E-D-C-A-G; for starters, you have the opening figure ("This happened once before") and the title phrase at the end of the same line ("no reply-y-y").
  Next note The verse has an overall melodic contour of an arch, though all its phrases, except for the climactic third one, make descending gestures. The bridge is a lopsided arch, the majority of whose melodic action is on the ascent.
  Next note Six of the seven indigenous chords of the home key, C Major, are used along with two secondary dominants, V-of-vi (E-Major) and V-of-ii (A-Major).
  Next note We run into a new chord for the first time in this song. We've already seen a couple of functionally sub-dominant chords in the other songs we've looked at: IV, ii, and V-of-V. In "No Reply" we encounter a new variant, the "ii6/5" chord, which is nothing other than the ii7 chord in its first inversion. (For you guitar players we're talking about a d-minor seventh chord with the F-natural in the bass.)
  Next note The ii6/5 chord is an especially cute sub-dominant because of its "added sixth" sonority; as though ii and IV were super-imposed on each other. Its usage here is all the more appropriate because our ears make an alliterative association between it and the C chord with an added sixth which is used heavily throughout; analogous to the way that people sometimes say that the blue flecks in your necktie "pick up" the color of your eyes.
  Next note The harmonic rhythm in every phrase of the song other than the third phrase of the verse changes chords on each of the first three measures, and sustains the third chord through the fourth measure. That infamous third phrase of the verses changes chord in every measure.


  Next note The basic combo on the backing track makes prominent use of acoustic guitar and is supplemented in spots by piano and handclaps.
  Next note It's difficult to clearly savor the arrangement from the grungy mono mix available officially to us on CD. The "Anthology" outtakes, while cleaner, do not feature the final arrangement; rats.
  Next note For this reason, the exact nature of the vocal arrangement and the manner in which the ensemble sound is intensified for the third verse phrase and bridge are particular mysteries. For now I'm willing to suggest the following; alternatives and corrections, as always, will be appreciated:
  • Vocals: John is double-tracked as lead for all verse phrases except for the third one. In the latter as well as in the bridges, Paul sings in harmony above him. But I find myself wondering if instead of John double-tracked we have John and Paul singing in unison, a la "Misery".
  • Backing track: We have quiet scoring for acoustic guitar, bass, and drums without cymbals in all verse phrases except for the third one. In the latter, as well as the bridges, add cymbals to the drumming, piano and maybe electric guitar. For the bridge also add handclaps.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note We start off, yet again, in the midst of the action; the Boys seem to have liked doing that. Both the rhythmic pickup of the vocal part as well as the chord progression contribute to this effect. The first downbeat in the song is actually on the syllable "fore" in "This happened once before." The first chord of the song is the ii6/5 which moves quickly to V -» I.
  Next note From a formal perspective, we have a straightforward four-by-four, sixteen-measure verse but the dramatic AA'BA'' shape created by the four phrases is worthy of note:
       --------------- 2X ----------------
      |d       |G       |C       |-       |
   C:  ii6      V        I(added sixth)

      |a       |e       |F7      |e       |
       vi       iii      IV7      iii

      |d       |G       |C       |-       |
       ii6      V        I(added sixth)

   [Figure 8.1]
  Next note The A phrases are musically straightforward. We have a full cadence with a two-measure prolongation of the tonic. Note how the tune turns all the C Major chords into added-sixth sonorities.
  Next note The contrasting B phrase ("I saw the light / I nearly died") is the focal point of dramatic tension for the entire song; it's no accident that this material is recycled in the coda. The syncopations here are quite violent, with the chords changing in each of the four measures on the eighth note just preceding the downbeat. Now let's zero in on the harmony.
  Next note In my personal experience of this phrase I definitely expect something other than a return to e-minor for the last chord, maybe the I chord. The first pair of chords is fine; vi -» iii is a rather "logical" progression because it lies along the circle of fifths. Then the tension increases to a peak in the third chord where we move to F with the tremendous dissonance of e sustained from the previous chord; the note, e, is actually sustained through the entire phrase. I believe that we expect to go "forward" from this F chord, not slide impotently backwards to where we came from, and yet, this turn of events is surprisingly effective because it provides an uncanny foil to the lyrics. The words are self-assertive and confrontational while the harmony vacillates. This contrast lends a degree of subtle complexity to feeling projected by the song; it's not clear if our hero is as ready for his moment of reckoning as he states.
  Next note In terms of implied dissonance, the melodic note, A, is left hanging (on the word "light" or "died") after the a-minor and F-Major chords shift back to the e-minor chord. You have to resort to the accompaniment to get a sense of that note resolving somehow downward to E or G.
  Next note The repeat of the A phrase at the end of the verse nicely makes for a dramatic "arch" shape; further pulling back from the emotional peak of the previous phrase. Harmonically, the juxtaposition of this last phrase to the end of the B phrase provides us with an e-to-F chord progression which finally does move up to G. Focus your ears on the bassline in phrases three and four of the verse if you want to experience the vacillation and eventual movement more keenly. After the descent to E, the repeated vacillation between E and F before finally moving up to G reminds me of the "two-steps forward-one-step backward" physical sensation of pushing a heavy object up an incline. Here's the bass line of the third and fourth phrase run together (yes, this would be easier with music paper):
                   F               F**
           E               E

   [Figure 8.2]
  (** In the first verse of the song, if you listen very carefully, you might argue that the second F in the above bass line is actually a D. However, the other two verses definitely show F, and though you may throw me my own line about avoiding foolish consistency, I'm going to say that in this case, the D in the first verse was a sloppy "mistake". Actually, the D instead of the F also makes for a nice melodic bassline too but I still wish they were consistent in this case. This would certainly be an instance where an alternate take of the song might help settle the point,) but the Anthology outtakes are just as maddeningly indefinite on this point as the official version. In the final result I could argue phrase is equally effective with D in the bassline.)


  Next note The bridge is sixteen measures long. It repeats the following eight-measure phrase to create an AA form:
   |C       |E       |A       |-       |
    I        V-of-vi  V-of-ii

   |d       |F       |C       |-       |
    ii       IV       I

   [Figure 8.3]
  Next note The delivery intensifies yet again for this section, but without the hard syncopations, there is little of the earlier tension.
  Next note The bridge sounds at first like it's going to stray much further away from home harmonically that it eventually does. This sort of harmonic wilting of resolve provides still more of a foil to the decisive lyrics.
  Next note The E and A chords create a momentary intimation of modulation which is quickly dispelled. The E chord "might" be a V-of-vi, and the appearance of A-Major instead of a-minor is a further surprise. In the instant before we realize that it's only V-of-ii we think we "might" be actually switching keys to A! But alas, it's really turns out to be "only" V-of-ii and we're right back in the key of C.
  Next note A notable example of Lennon wordplay is found here in the way that the lyrics blithely change point of view twice in the first phrase. "I" appears three times there, referring to the hero himself in instance 1 and 3, but switching to refer to the antagonist for instance 2.


  Next note The verse is repeated once more following the bridge and then we're treated to a four-measure coda which is a variant on the B phrase of the verse:
   |a       |e       |F7      |C       |
    vi       iii      IV       I9

   [Figure 8.4]
  Next note In the measure just before this coda Ringo very casually throws in a hard syncopation just before the downbeat, with the rest of the ensemble conspicuously not joining him. This bears a direct comparison with the way in which the group casually drops a certain dotted rhythm in favor of even notes in the last verse of "We Can Work It Out".
  Next note The final chord is special; a sonorous, freely dissonant added sixth plus added ninth (notes A and D sounding on top of a C chord). It's interesting to note that while the ninth in the final chord is "free", it's not without reasonable motivation. If you look back at the first two chords in the phrase (a -» e), there is an inner voice that moves downward from C in the first chord to B in the second chord. The same thing happens in phrase B above when the F7 chord slides down to E. At any rate, in our final chord progression, the added-ninth comes into play when an inner voice moves from E (in the F7 chord) to D (on top of the C chord.) You think I'm pushing it? I say listen carefully and savor the way they let that final chord ring out!

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The two outtakes of "No Reply" released on "Anthology" 1, a "take 1 / demo" from early June 1964 and a "take 2" from the late September session at which recording of the song was completed, make for fascinating comparison with the official version as well as with each other.


  Next note Form: The most critical and glaring difference is in how the third phrase of the verse is only partially developed at this point; just two measures long, with one chord change to a-minor, and not much syncopation. Yes, the Beatles were known for using just such half-phrases, but this one sounds uncomfortably forced. At least for we who are so familiar with how it eventually turned out, it's hard to accept it as it is in this outtake. At this stage the song ends with just half of a verse following the bridge.
  Next note Vocals: Paul backs John the whole way through, most of the time in harmony rather than unison. Paul frankly sounds like he's trying to upstage John on his own song with continual horsing around and hammy vocalizing. A small but telling detail: in the bridge, Paul harmonizes consistently at a third above John. In one particular spot (when John jumps down from E to C# on the words "that I," Paul winds up singing G# to E which sounds terrible. In both the later outtake and the final version, Paul breaks the parallel third rule to move up from his G# to A; much better.
  Next note Arrangement: None of the quiet-versus-loud contrast manifest in the final product is yet in evidence. No part yet for piano. And the rhythm guitar part is electric rather than acoustic.
  Next note Lyrics: The verse lyrics are deployed in the ABA pattern. And watch out for "forget" instead of "forgive" in the bridge.

Take 2

  Next note Form: The familiar, complete version of the third verse phrase is now in place. The final coda is appears in part, but breaks down midstream with a comment from John that suggests that it had only recently been figured out, and by implication, was not yet fluently under their fingers.
  Next note Vocals: The familiar pattern of verse harmonization is in place, though Paul still sings all the way through with John, doubling him when there's no harmony.
  Next note Arrangement: The familiar quiet-versus-loud pattern is almost there, but sloppily and inconsistently executed. The first verse is correctly quiet for the first two phrases and loud for the third, but the loudness is incorrectly sustained through the fourth phrase. The second verse is "loud" throughout with no quiet contrast. The bridge accidentally starts out quiet instead of loud. The piano shows up intermittently in this take elsewhere in the verses than just the third phrase.
  Next note Lyrics: The "forgive/forget" change has now been made, but the verse lyrics are still deployed here in the ABA pattern. The decision to go with ABB apparently must have been late breaking.
  Alan (052900#8.1)
Revision History
080189  8.0 Original release
052900  8.1 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.