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notes on ...

Notes on "Only A Northern Song"


Notes on ... Series #157 (OANS)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 2/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain (instrumental) | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Yellow Submarine", Track 2 (Parlophone CDP7 46445-2)
        CD: "Yellow Submarine Songtrack", Track 11 (EMI 5 21481-2)
  Recorded: 13th, 14th February, 20th April 1967, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 17th January 1969 (LP "Yellow Submarine")
US-release: 13th January 1969 (LP "Yellow Submarine")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note If this song, released as it was in 1969, seems on the heels of our "White Album" studies to sound like a throwback to the "Sgt. Pepper" days of 1967, with it's relatively straightforward backing track overlaid with a lot of "noise" (in the manner of "... Mr. Kite"), you shouldn't be surprised.
  Next note Contrary to some misinformation that has become well entrenched in the literature, this song was not thrown together right before the "Yellow Submarine" film was due. Rather, it was given a standard workup during the earlier "Sgt. Pepper" sessions, sandwiched in "A Day In The Life" and (no surprise!) "Mr. Kite".
  Next note The form is a hybrid, with pop-like doubled up verses at the start and a folk-like persistent repetition of the refrain.
  Next note Those repeated references in the lyrics to "chords ... going wrong" and the like are most obviously painted in the music by what I call the "noise track" below. However, the chord progressions themselves and the changeable phrase lengths admirably follow through on the same idea on a more subtle level.
  Next note For the purpose of this article, I'm parsing the song in 2/4 rather than 4/4 in order to make the uneven phrasing easier to notate.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune, with its primarily step-wise motion and limited range, suggests a mood both obsessing and in-drawn, uncannily in tune with the lyrics.
  Next note The harmony, by contrast, with its erratic pace of change and sudden changes in direction, seems uncomfortably restless; uncannily in tune too with yet another dimension of those lyrics.


  Next note The base track features organ, bass guitar, and drum kit, onto which is overlaid a stylized "noise (or interference) track" that contains the sounds of trumpets, metallic and broken glass-like percussion, and piano doodling.
  Next note In true Beatles' layering style, the noise track is first introduced at the end of the first verse, though I believe it runs continuously from there to the end of the track, mixed way up or back down as the mood suits. Note, too, how even in the first verse, the organ part finds its own subtle way to anticipate the noise that is to come.
  Next note As a general rule, the volume of the noise track is turned down at the beginning of sections and up at their endings. Exceptions to this are the instrumental middle verse, the partially instrumental third refrain, and the outro, in all of which the volume level is kept high throughout.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro sounds more random and out of tempo than it is largely because of the lack of clear drumbeat until the last couple measures.
  Next note Harmonically, the second half introduces, over an E pedal point, what you'll only realize later is to be the chord progression that accompanies the title phrase of the song.
  Next note The home key is converged upon from left field:
       G   - A |B       |...
      |C7      |e       |D       |A       |E       |-       |
   A:  flat-III v        IV       I        V

   [Figure 157.1]


  Next note The verse is a surprising nineteen measures long. It starts off innocently enough, with two related phrases (AA') over the static harmony of the first eight measures. But then, just where you'd otherwise expect a third phrase to be, you find a rather rhetorical pause in the tune. And the final line of the section changes harmony a full measure ahead of where you'd expect; after three, instead of four measures.
      |A       |-       |-       |-       |
   A:  I

      |-       |-       |-       |-       |

      |b       |-       |-       |-       |

      |E       |-       |-       |D       |-       |-       |-       |
       V                          IV

   [Figure 157.2]
  Next note That off-kilter chord change in the last line helps put a little body English onto what shapes up as an almost agonizingly long, slow passage in terms of harmonic rhythm.
  Next note The harmonic shape of this section slowly but surely opens wide to V, but then cautiously pulls back to IV. This is a classic approach-avoidance reflex played out in chords, as though the protagonist, after screwing up some unaccustomed amount of courage, suddenly felt as though he had overstepped himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth.


  Next note The bridge is fifteen measures long, and it continues the rhetorically uneven phrasing pattern established in the verse. This time we have three phrases filling out four, six, and five measures respectively. And then, there's the matter of the third phrase opening with a single measure of 3/4 (or perhaps 6/8) interpolated; shades of Lennon in "Strawberry Fields Forever".
      |E       |b       |G       |C#      |
   A:  V        ii
            b:  i        VI       V-of-V

      |F#      |-       |b       |-       |F#      |-       |
   b:  V                 i                 V

      |D   A   |E       |-       |-       |-       |
   b:  III
   A:  IV  I    V

   [Figure 157.3]
  Next note The harmony makes a forcible modulation to the key of ii (b minor) that somehow looks much smoother on paper than it sounds. It settles in b for a while, only to switch back even more forcibly than before to the home key, ending the section on V, this time without any flinching or pussy footing.
  Next note In contrast to the tortoise-paced harmonic rhythm of the verse, the chord changes here tend toward every, or every other measure.
  Next note Aside from the functional pivot, what helps make the modulation in the first phrase work is the appearance of the note B as a common pitch in all four chords.


  Next note The outro features a mix that is very similar to what is heard in the earlier instrumental verse, and form-wise, it fills out a complete verse and refrain, ending with a final verse that fades out completely before reaching its midpoint.
  Next note The noise track is mixed so far forward in this outro that you have to strain to recognize the familiar underpinnings of the base track.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note In this song, according to the conventional wisdom, George is bemoaning the second-class treatment he gets as a song writer from the other Beatles; the apparent creative invisibility he feels it is futile for him to try to transcend in their eyes.
  Next note Certainly, I'd never envy George's predicament of being caught in the competitive, psycho-sexual crossfire of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney nor question the sincerity of the pain he expresses about it in this song.
  Next note But I wonder whether if, in choosing to nobly refrain from lashing out directly at the others and instead, focusing no matter how cleverly on his own bitterness, the strategy backfires in aesthetic terms.
  Next note The song, though it may have been targeted to arouse from us a reaction of pathos-like sympathetic sadness and compassion, it ends up hitting the unintended mark of merely pathetic scornful pity.
  Alan (110898#157)
Copyright © 1998 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.