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notes on ...

Notes on "Old Brown Shoe"


Notes on ... Series #164 (OBS)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: C Major / a minor
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse (Instrumental) | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Past Masters", Volume 2, Track 12 (Parlophone CDP 90044-2)
  Recorded: 16th, 18th April 1969, Abbey Road 3
UK-release: 30th May 1969 (B Single / "The Ballad Of John And Yoko")
US-release: 4th June 1969 (B Single / "The Ballad Of John And Yoko")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "Old Brown Shoe" provides as fine an example you'll find this side of "Abbey Road" of George Harrison (Scouse of Distinction) doing his thing while also holding his own. And yet, it retains a B-side kind of relative obscurity that is as unfortunate as it is undeserved.
  Next note The song bears enough Lennon and McCartney Stylized Blues influence to fit in compatibly with the group's overall output of the period. But at the same time, George appears happy and comfortable to go his own way with respect to chord progressions, arrangement, and an artfully complex, ambiguous attitude in the lyrics hard to pin down between sarcasm and ardor.
  Next note The form is the variant of the classic two bridge model that has only a single middle verse section. Unusual, in this case, is the fact that the lone middle verse is an instrumental. I don't recall any other official Beatles recording with this exact form, though I'll be properly thankful if you remind me otherwise.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note I'm calling C Major as the home key, even though the verse section has a nasty habit of veering off to the relative minor key of a. This creates a musical effect somewhat reminiscent of hitching your pants up, only to find, that in the expenditure of even the least exertion, they keep slipping down. Even in absence of this specific key gambit, we note George's penchant for sadly "wilting" harmonic effects created by downward chord progressions; e.g. "Don't Bother Me", "If I Needed Someone", or "... Guitar Gently Weeps".
  Next note This playing around with the key pair of Major and relative minor is a perennial favorite of the Beatles going way back. I think of "And I Love Her" as being the closest example to this one, though the two songs assign opposite roles to their respective Major and relative minors.
  Next note Unusually prominent play is given here to the equally unusual chord on flat-VI (i.e. A-flat). It creates a hard and direct cross relation with the A-natural of the IV (F) chord on either side of it. I dare say you even pick up the whiff of a much more indirect cross relation with the a-minor chord that ends the verse, even though they are separated by several measures.
  Next note In terms of The Blues, the tune is heavily inflected with flat thirds and sevenths. And, of course, there's heavy play given to the freely dissonant I7 chord throughout.


  Next note The extreme up tempo and rapid triplets are reminiscent of both "Got To Get You Into My Life" and George's own "I Want To Tell You". The insistent persistence of the piano part also connects "Old Brown Shoe" to the latter.
  Next note The mix of jangle piano, organ, lead guitar and very heavy bass makes an uncanny texture. Though I think that recording of the lead vocal with George facing into a tight corner is a nobly clever idea that just doesn't work; i.e. the effect of the vocal is unpleasantly muddy that than intriguing?
  Next note Typical layering tricks are used throughout, though to less dramatic effect than usual:
  • Just bass and piano.
  • But dig the nice triplet pickups in the bass.
  Verse 1
  • Drums enter on the pickup.
  • Single tracked lead vocal.
  • Lead guitar riffs in the first half.
  • Add background wash from organ for second half.
  Verse 2
  • Preceded by half of an intro.
  Bridge 1
  • Drop organ for start but add it back in for second half.
  • Backing vocals appear on alternate (even numbered) phrases.
  • Fast triplets appear in bass on second half of every measure. According to Lewisohn, this effect was executed by cooperation of Paul and George.
  Instrumental Verse
  • No intro, not even partial.
  • Organ is there for the entire section.
  • Tone of lead guitar is radically different in each half.
  Bridge 2
  • This time, organ stays in all the way through.
  • Is there some kind of undocumented "squeak" on the backing track at the start?
  Final Verse
  • Again, no intro.
  • Two documented spontaneous sounding exclamations.
  • Backing voices are added to petit reprise of "So glad ...".
  • Falsetto scat singing into the sunset.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is a four measure long vamp on C7 that establishes both the tone and the home key of what is to follow:
      |C-flat 7    |-           |-           |-           |
   C:  I

   [Figure 164.1]


  Next note The verse is sixteen measures long and parses into four phrases of equal length:
      |C-flat 7    |-           |-           |-           |
   C:  I

      |d7          |-           |-           |-           |

      |F           |-           |A-flat      |-           |
       IV                        flat-VI

      |F           |E aug.      |a           |-           |
       IV                        vi
   a:  VI           V            i

   [Figure 164.2]
  Next note Harmonic rhythm starts very slow and then picks up speed over the final two phrases.
  Next note I've labeled the chords to show how a pivot modulation to A minor is effected, though the latter is so short lived that calling it a modulation per se feels overstated.
  Next note The higher level melodic shape of the verse is an arch, though the individual phrases locally each have a downward trajectory. Note how the note "C" provides a kind of pedal point in the treble (in contrast to the more common bass) voice for the section. This pedal point "forces" the E chord to be augmented (with C replacing what would have been the more conventional B).


  Next note The bridge is twelve measures long, and parses into an AAB pattern in which B phrase is a direct rhetorical outgrowth of the previous phase:
      |G           |-           |-           |F           |
   C:  V                                      IV

      |G           |-           |-           |F           |
       V                                      IV

      |f#o7        |-           |G           |-           |

   [Figure 164.3]
  Next note The harmonic rhythm change in third phrase makes the section sound less squared off than it is.
  Next note This section revolves entirely around the V chord. This provides both local harmonic motivation for the following verse to lead off from I, but on a higher level is responsible for clearly asserting C Major as the home key, in spite of the verse ends on a minor.
  Next note Please don't ask me to put a Roman numeral under the f# diminished seventh chord. Harmonically, it is no more than a side effect of F# appearing in the bassline as a chromatic passing tone between F and G.
  Next note The tune in this section features a motif of short phrases which step down a third. The higher level melodic shape is one of static noodling between b and c.
  Next note That attempt to rhyme "imperfect" with "can't reject" should have been (ugh ...) rejected, if you know what I mean.


  Next note The outro grows out of the final verse with a single (rather than the more typical double) reprise of final phrase.
  Next note This leads into a long section of intro-like vamping on I7 that goes on for at least twenty measures before the complete fade-out.
  Next note The first eight measures are entirely instrumental, with the scat singing vocal starting with measure 9.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note A musicological conundrum: if the 2/25 "birthday" version of "Old Brown Shoe" on "Anthology 3" is a "demo" that features only George performing, then are we to make of the outtakes performed by the entire group back on 1/28 in the thick of the Get Back sessions? Lewisohn doesn't even mention the latter in Recording Sessions, but I've heard at least one of those outtakes is available on a "Yellow Dog" boot devoted to Harrison songs and performances from those ill-fated 1/69 sessions.
  Next note The 1/28 take I've heard is admittedly is rough in execution, but it already presents the song in its final form and close to final arrangement. In my humble opinion, the 2/25 version is not materially "better" or "different" from that on 1/28. The latter at least includes drums! So why should George be doing it alone some five weeks later, ostensibly to lay it down for so that the others could learn their respective parts?
  Next note It's easy to suppose that the 2/25 was far from the "first time" he was not "lonely without [them]." Something along the lines of why you sometimes cooked for yourself and ate by your lonesome in that Quad suite you shared with your three college roommates. But why do so after you've already eaten your dinner with them, other than to spite yourself?
  Alan (041899#164)
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.