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Notes on "Polythene Pam"


Notes on ... Series #187 (PP)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Intro | Verse |
                          | Intro | Outro  (segue al subito)
        CD: "Abbey Road", Track 12 (Parlophone CDP7 46446-2)
  Recorded: 25th July 1969, Abbey Road 2; 28th July 1969,
            Abbey Road 3; 30th July 1969, Abbey Road 2
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 "Polythene Pam" maintains a relationship with its preceding (literal) brother track uncannily balanced between the forces of unity and contrast.
  Next note The two songs are musical portraits of individuals who are blood-related but otherwise very different personality types, not to mention separate genders.
  Next note Both songs are relatively abbreviated in terms of both form and duration. By the same token, the two of them are sequenced to create a single, unbroken and quite powerful one-two wind up punch of a lead into "... Bathroom Window".

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune is pattering again, perhaps even more so than in "Mean Mr Mustard". Like the latter, this one provides melodic contour, such as it minimally exists, by transposing its simple downward motifs up or down the scale. In particular note the chromatic upward crawl in the third phrase.
  Next note The two songs manifest an harmonic unity of both home key and, with one exception, the same set of chords. G-Major is the one chord that appears in only "Polythene Pam". Its more obvious label would be flat-III though I believe one hears it, in this case, as making a delayed V -» I like resolution to the C-Major chord a measure later.
  Next note The two songs contrast most sharply in their harmonic teleology. "Mean Mr Mustard" a starts from I and opens out to V, cycling always right back to I. "Polythene Pam" never starts on I but always converges inexorably upon it.
  Next note Similarly the two songs handle the V chord very differently. "Mean Mr Mustard" allows V to serve its traditional role of full cadence maker. "Polythene Pam" relegates V to a supporting role (where it resolves deceptively) to flat-VI; relying instead on flat-VII to make cadences, either directly or by way of the double plagal chord progression.


  Next note The "Polythene Pam" backing track alternates between a wall of sound similar to, or compatible with that of "Mean Mr Mustard", but it provides some welcome relief using different instrumentation and stereo imaging for the recurring Intro section, and a generally higher quotient of airtime given to instrumental music minus singing. Note the special lightness added by the appearance of acoustic guitar and even the smallest amount of silence surrounding some of the chords.
  Next note John does the lead vocal double tracked. Scat backing vocals in parallel thirds join in the third measure and stay the rest of the way through the verse.
  Next note The two songs have contrasting backbeats, a side effect of their handling syncopation differently. "Mean Mr Mustard" leaves you with the musical aftertaste of a marching cakewalk in spite of its ocassionally placing hard syncopations on the eighth note before the downbeat. "Polythene Pam" creates a more swinging aura without as much syncopation, relying on its faster tempo, and the widespread use of the rhythmic motif that emphasizes the last three eighth notes in the first half of a 4/4 measure; what I jokingly refer to as the Beethoven 5th gambit. The only other place I can recall that motif showing up in a Beatles song, by the way, is the abandoned early version of "One After 909" from March 1963.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note Lest there be any lingering doubt about it, the final D-Major chord of "Mean Mr Mustard" (and which could have just as easily been the first chord of "Polythene Pam") is found at the end of the album, just before "Her Majesty" kicks in.
  Next note The actual splice that ties "Mean Mr Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" together is pretty darn smooth in any event, though it places that opening D-Major chord (along with the other two chords in the introductory double plagal cadence) of an pedal point of E in the bass:
         --------------------------- 2X -----------------------------
         1       2      3      4       1   &   2   &   3      4
Rhythm: |Bom!           Bom!          |    Ba, Ba, Ba, Bom!          |
  Bass: |E              E             |E                             |
Chords: |D              A             |E                             |
     E:  flat-VII       IV             I

   [Figure 187.1]
  Next note This instrumental section alternates with two verse sections, thus appearing virtually unchanged three times over, and providing the musical basis for the extended instrumental outro.


  Next note The verse is an unusual ten measures long that you parse as a quatrain plus additional spacer phrase; AABA' + spacer. The latter stands in formal counterpoint with a tiling of musical phrases running AABCC:
    ---------------------------- 2X -----------------------------
   |D              A              |E                             |
    flat-VII       IV              I

   |G                             |B                             |
    V-of-flat-VI                   V

    ---------------------------- 2X -----------------------------
   |C              D              |E                             |
    flat-VI        flat-VII        I

   [Figure 187.2]
  Next note Similarly, the change of harmonic rhythm for just the middle phrase, combined with the extent to which both outer phrases converge toward I via flat-VII but by different routes, creates an harmonic structure of AABA'A'.
  Next note I'm left wondering here if the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" lyrics for the spacer phrase are an ironic tip of the hat to "She Loves You" or by this point in time just a lazy habit.


  The outro is relatively long, accounting for as much as about 40% of the overall track length. It is twenty-two measures long and parses out as eight iterations of the double plagal phrase (the version with the root note of each chord in the bassline) followed by six measures of build up on just the I chord. The last four measures of the latter phrase contain a dramatic downward scale in the bassline that effectively leads right into the next track by making you hear that E-Major chord pivot as V of the key of A.
    1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     1  2  3  4  5  6
   |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |DA|E |E |E |E |E |E |E |A
                                               Bassline:  E  D  C# B  I

   [Figure 187.3]
  Next note A lead guitar solo kicks in during iteration 2 of the double plagal phrase and continues to the downbeat of measure 3 of the plain E-Major chord. This is the same point at which John says, "Listen to that now."

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note We have an outtake of "Polythene Pam" from the Get Back sessions done at Apple on 1/24/69 that is only one of this song known prior to the Abbey Road sessions.
  Next note This performance is so rough and stumbling by all involved that I'm tempted to call it more a "sketch" than a rehearsal or runthrough. John and Paul in particular seem to be having a dickens of a time keeping their signals straight with respect to either words or chord changes.
  Next note Given that the earliest outtakes of "Mean Mr Mustard" we looked at last time are dated either 1/8 or 1/14 and appear in more polished shape compared to the "Polythene Pam" performance from the 24th of the same month, I'm willing to interpret this as supporting the theory that John really didn't have Pam at all in mind yet when he earlier referred to the Mustard man's sister as Shirley.
  Next note This kind of speculation brings to mind the an observation often repeated by Erle Stanley Gardner's fictitous detective/lawyer, Perry Mason, with regard to circumstantial evidence. He would warn, on the one hand, about the grave danger inherent in the possible misinterpretation of such evidence. But he'd hasten to reiterate, just as quickly, that such evidence is often the best, if not only, evidence we have to go on; and that's regardless of whether you're a laywer, detective, or musicologist who follows the Beatles.
  Alan (123199#187)
  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.