alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"


Notes on ... Series #133 (OO)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: B Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 4 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 3rd-5th July 1968, Abbey Road 2;
            9th, 11th July 1968, Abbey Road 3;
            15th July 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note The charming effect of this upbeat number is nicely enhanced by its apparently spontaneous, come-as-you-are production values. Those characteristic overdubbed Beatlesque details seem much more randomly applied here than usual.
  Next note The form feels on the long side, though if you take in the verse and refrain as a single unit, the whole thing reduces down to the so-called shorter two-bridge model; with only one section coming between the bridges.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The untroubled mood of the lyrics is carried through to the musical fabric, with its comfortably singable tune, even phrase lengths, and straightforward chord choices.
  Next note Melodically, we find sophisticated compound arches deployed in the verse, balanced activity between chord outlines and stepwise motion in the refrain, and predominating arpeggios in the bridge.
  Next note Only four different chords are used, all of which are common and indigenous to the home key: the old I, IV, V, plus vi.


  Next note The track is predominated by the double-tracked lead, a limping bassline, and some drums. Many other effects, whose particular detailed itinerary I leave for you to trace, come and go:
  • Handclaps and drums, which stagger onto the intro.
  • Backing voices, which appear for the first time in the first refrain.
  • Vocalized noises, such as "chick, chick, chick, chick ...," which appear in the second verse.
  • Backing voices, singing "la-la-la-la" in the second refrain, later followed by more hand claps.
  • Saxophones, added for the bridges in a descending scale obbligato, plus vocalized ("ha ha") laughing, maracas, and a supcon de harpsichord.
  • Conga drums in the third verse, or what sounds like a small remnant of them left over from the discarded alternative version.
  • Saxophones, again, sitting in for the third refrain.
  • A piano glissando, which presages the second bridge, in which we find still more mysterious mutterings in the background and clearer maracas and harpsichord on the backing track.
  • Piano arpeggios, delicately executed in the final verse.
  • ... and the whole kitchen-sink, not to mention a falsetto "thank you," thrown in for good measure in the outro.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is an unusual five measures long; essentially a four-measure vamp heralded by one measure's worth of a fanfare cliché on the jangly piano. Think of the "real" downbeat of the track as being at the start of the second measure:
                     ------------ 2X --------------
   |F#             ||B             |-              |

   [Figure 133.1]
  Next note The piano is immediately joined by the bass. Embellishments to this duo are staggered (as is typical), though much less neatly or strictly patterned than usual; claps start in the middle of the second measure (on the off-beat before "three") and make a dovetail joint with the drums that enter on the off-beat before "two" in the following measure.


  Next note The verse is eight measures long, with four even phrases that create an ABA'B' pattern:
      |B               |F#             |
   B:  I                V

      |F#              |B              |
       V                I

      |B               |E              |
       I                IV

      |B       F#      |B              |
       I       V        I

   [Figure 133.2]
  Next note The harmony of this section is about as simply childlike as could be imagined, establishing the home key clearly and keeping the tonal focus right there.
  Next note The tune is one of those gems whose elegance of design yields instructively to analysis, yet at the same time, you find that the resulting analytical blueprint crumbles in your hands, as it were, if you try to tune-smith from at as though baking bread from a recipe. So, as long as you use it for instructional (medicinal?) purposes, only, here it is:
  • The first phrase has a down-and-back-up-again contour, creating higher-level melodic motion from D# -» C# (i.e. scale steps 3 to 2).
  • The second phrase "answers" the first one by starting a bit higher (on E, step 4), and then coming all the way straight back down the scale (to B, step 1).
  • The third phrase has a contour similar to that of the first phrase, but it starts further up the scale so that the higher-level motion is from F# -» G# (i.e. scale steps 5 to 6).
  • The fourth phrase, like the second one, picks up at top of the range achieved by the previous phrase, and then comes all the way (note quite straight) back down to the bottom of the slide.


  Next note The refrain is also eight measures long with four even phrases but this time the pattern is ((AB) * 2):
    ------------------------------- 2X -------------------------------
   |B               |F#      g#      |B       F#      |B              |
    I                V       vi       I       V        I

   [Figure 133.3]
  Next note The harmony is, again, focused directly on the home key, though the "deceptive cadence" to vi provides some varied respite from tedium, and at the same time sets up the "potential" for exploiting this device in the coda.


  Next note The bridge is, yet again, eight measure long, with an "ABAB'" pattern somewhat similar to that of the verse:
      |E               |-               |
   B:  IV

      |B               |-              |
       I                       (V-of-IV)

      |E               |-              |

      |F# 6/4          |5/3            |

   [Figure 133.4]
  Next note This time, at least, the harmony opens up a bit, with the section opening on IV and ending on a big V build up.


  Next note The outro is an extension of the final refrain, triggered by a repetition of the deceptive cadence heard two measures earlier, and lyrically allowing the song to end with its title phrase:
   |B       |F#  g#  |B   F#  |g#      |-       |F#  B   |
    I        V   vi   I   V    vi                V   I

   [Figure 133.5]

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note There's a veritable laundry list you could compile of the detailed differences between the official version of this song and the well-known earlier version that was around on bootleg for years and has now appeared for real on "Anthology", Volume 3.
  Next note And yet, I think the crucial differences between these versions which tip the balance in favor of the official version are the following two, whose common denominator is a matter of how much things are left to chance as opposed to being predictable:
  • The official version's bassline has a characteristic "limp" to it that, in some ways, provides the hook for the whole song; played as arpeggios in a rhythm that goes "One, two-and, Three, four-and, One ..." The earlier version has more evenly spaced motor beat of even eighth notes with a slight roll leading into the downbeat of each measure.
  • The official version has its finishing details applied in an almost perversely random manner. The earlier version includes virtually all the same details, but they are notably applied in consistent, neat patterns; heck, even the "chick chick chick"s show up in the same place in both bridges!
  • The official version rings more truly because even if "life" does seem to routinely "go on" (while you're busy making other plans), there's always got to be something random thrown into the mix, if for no other reason, than to keep you on your toes and remind you that you are alive.
  Alan (080397#133)
Copyright © 1997 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.