alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Sun King"


Notes on ... Series #185 (SK)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: [Part A] Intro | Verse (instrumental) |
                    [Part B] Refrain | Bridge | Refrain' |
                    [Part A'] Verse (sung) (with complete ending)
        CD: "Abbey Road", Track 10 (Parlophone CDP7 46446-2)
  Recorded: 24th, 25th July 1969, Abbey Road 2;
            29th July 1969, Abbey Road 3
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 "Sun King" makes an uncanny companion piece for "Because" in the way they share a similar sustained and paradoxically relaxed-while-ecstatic affect. I know very well that the medley begins not with "Because" but rather with "You Never Give Me Your Money"; you don't need to remind me :-) Still, I cannot help responding to the neat ABA symmetry created by the specific sequencing of the three aforementioned tracks.
  Next note "Sun King" also amply demonstrates John's often ingenious approach to form. The track is built up from a small number of short phrases or sections that are flexibly repeated and sequenced in the manner mosaic tiles. The larger form of the track is a kind of miniaturized "bonsai medley," with a discrete minature song in the middle section that is surrounded on both sides by unusually heavy wrapping of the verse-like outer sections, which by themselves don't quite make up a whole song, minature or otherwise. The mental picture is one of the small hamburger with a very large roll; sort of the opposite of a recent TIME magazine cover photo for an article about the current fad over high protein/fat, low carbo diets.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note With the focus here on mood and chord changes, the tune plays a secondary role.
  Next note The relatively high quotient of chords containing freely dissonant embellishment (such as the added sixth) simultaneously conjures both a jazzy, luxurious flavor and a can't-be-bothered ("nothing's going to change my world") attitude.
  Next note The high level key scheme of E Major -» C Major -» E Major gives further side-2 exposure to the key of C per se, as well as exposing another third-related key relationship that bears analogy to the A Major -» C Major gambit that so pervades the medley overall.
  Next note N.B. that key schemes based on thirds rather than the traditional circle of fifths or fourths almost always bring one or more of the Beatle-beloved chromatic cross-relations in their wake. In our current example, the key of E has four sharps in its signature, the key of C has none.
  Next note Historically, such key schemes became increasingly popular in the 19th century as a reaction to what had become a painfully predictable I -» V or IV key scheme "architecture" during the preceding so-called Classical period. Whereas Mozart or Haydn would virtually never use the third as a key relation, Beethoven uses it increasingly from middle period onward, during the period from Schubert to Brahms, the third-based architecture becomes sufficiently prominent to evolve into a new cliche on its own.


  Next note The backing track is dominated by two guitar parts, a very prominently mixed bass, and drums. An overlay of cricket-like night sounds and some organ-like synthesizer work rounds out the picture.
  Next note As almost always, attention to detail is manifest and spread throughout:
  Part A:
  • Completely instrumental; no vocals.
  • Night sounds, which originated as part of the collage of effects used in the previous track's long fade-out, plus a very soft roll on the cymbals anticpate the actual start of the music.
  • High hat cymbal work is added to the drum part starting after the outro.
  • The crickets are rapidly faded out for good at the end of the second repeat of the Verse phrase.
  • The lead guitar part opts for the rethorical emphasis of slow triplets for the third repeat of the Verse phrase.
  • And right near the end of this part of the song is a small bit (less than a whole word) of studio chat caught on the far left channel.
  Part B:
  • Chordal vocals on the phoneme "ah ..." pressage the start of this section, and this vocal texture remains pretty much the same for the rest of the track, all the way through the following Part A'.
  • Backing texture is filled out by some kind of electric keyboard instrument.
  • There is yet another change in drumming pattern.
  • John's double-tracked lead vocal breaks away slightly from the backers during the last two phrases of this section. Similarly, the backing vocals have a melodic swell that cascades "over" John's lead in the final phrase.
  Part A':
  • Chordal vocals continue here but switch to an uncannily persuasive sounding albeit nonsensical jumble of Italian and Spanish.
  • The drumming sounds different on each of the two stereo channels, implying either a double track effect or an "extreme stereo" recording of the drums for this section (compare with the drum solo on "The End").
  • The scanning of the words develops the slow triplets idea introduced at the end of Part A.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

  [Part A]


  Next note The intro is four measures long and consists of vamping on an added-sixth enhanced I chord of the home key:
       -------------- 2x ---------------
      |E added 6th     |-               |
   E:  I

   [Figure 185.1]
  Next note The arrangement is mechanically intricate in spite (because?) of the static harmony, and divides the phrase into two identical halves. Consider this our first example of mosaic-like formal tiling in this song.


  Next note The Verse presents three times in a row a "two tile" pattern created by placing an harmonically convergent two measures in front of the intro's tile:
      |f#7         |-     & B13  |E added 6th |-           |
   E:  ii                   V     I

   [Figure 185.2]
  Next note All three chord are embellished and the chord change on the fourth beat of the second measure is a specific harmonic rhythm you don't see much of in the songs of the Beatles.
  Next note I hear a chromatic upward lick from F# -» G -» G# played out over the B-Major chord, though it never seems to be quite articulated outright.
  [Part B]


  Next note The transition to Part B of the song begins with an abrupt change of key and texture. Coming off the settled and complacent E Major flavor of Part A, we are confronted at this point with two measures worth of a G11 chord. The tempo remains constant, rhythmic activity comes to a halt during these measures. There is no pivot modulation here, just an immediate change of key:
      |G11             |-              |
   C:  V

   [Figure 185.3]
  Next note Yes, that G11 sure looks and sounds like an F-Major triad superimposed on the G-Major chord. Nevertheless the function of this chord as a "Dominant" for the key of C is audibly clear.
  Next note I label this next section a "Refrain" because it's the only place in the song that we hear the title phrase. The mosaic formal approach continues here with this harmonically open four measure phrase repeated twice in a row:
      |C           |- Major 7th |G           |A           |
   C:  I                         V            V-of-V-of-V

   [Figure 185.4]


  Next note The mini bridge of this section is four measures long and, like the intro above, is built out of a two-measure tile that it repeated immediately:
    -------------- 2X ---------------
   |F               |D               |
    IV               V-of-V

   [Figure 185.5]
  Next note While V-of-V-of-V [sic!] was an ususual enough by itself as the choice of harmonic target for the previous section, it's delayed resolution by way of the intervening IV chord makes for a tangy series of root movements by third and a corresponding chain of cross relations.
  Next note Note the chromatic downward lick in the keyboard part in this section.


  Next note The last phrase of this section is an harmonic variation of the earlier Refrain phrase modified to end up on F:
   |C              |- Major 7th     |- Dominant 7th |F               |
    I                                V-of-IV         IV
                                                 E:  flat-II

   [Figure 185.6]
  Next note You can trace yet another downward chromatic scale fragement over the course of this phrase: C -» B -» Bb -» A.
  [Part A']

Final Verse

  Next note The modulation back to E Major for the final part of the song is only slightly less abrupt than how we got from E to C in the first place. In terms of local motion, the move from F-Major to f#7 is a matter of typical surprise chromatic voice leading. On a more structural level, I hear a "modulation" here pivoting on the F chord as though it were the Nepolitan (flat-II) chord of the new key. For an earlier example of the same gambit by Mr. Lennon check out "You're Going To Lose That Girl".
  Next note The two-tile Verse phrase is repeated here three times in a row as it was in Part A. The first of these iterations is curiously the one place in the song where the phrase is started off with an A in the bass instead of F-sharp. This makes the chord in question sound as though it were a IV chord (A-Major) with an added sixth. I prefer to label it as still an f#7 chord, but one placed in the first, 6/5, inversion. I believe this inversion was used because it maded a better transition from the F-Major chord preceding; i.e. placing the A in the bass avoids what would have been an awkward sounding upward chromatic move in the bassline at the point.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The use of Spanish/Italian gibberish for the lyrics of the final part of this song is rather unique even for the Beatles.
  Next note Quite separate from his penchant for Lewis Carroll style Jabberwocky wordplay, John clearly also had a longstanding flair for what Homer Simpson might call "funny talk." Off the top of my head I think of his speaking pigeon German in the bathtub scene of "A Hard Days Night," his off the cuff "translation" on BBC radio of the same film's title into Portuguese as "Krinkst die Night," or even his mumbling of nonsense syllables at the end of "I'm So Tired".
  Next note But what we get in "Sun King" is not quite the same thing. And in terms of songs written by the other Beatles it doesn't bear much of a comparison to Paul's "Michelle" either.
  Next note In the end I am struck by just how smooth and appropriate the lyrics sound in context. On the flippant level, I might say it's like what Henry Higgins (of "Pygmalion" / "My Fair Lady") said about how "the French don't really care what they say as long as they pronounce it properly."
  Next note But I can restate the same comment to observe with more serious irony that for the listener who understands neither Spanish nor Italian, the question of whether or not the words make sense in literal or even figurative translation is moot and meaningless. John's fortuitous grasp of some of the rhythm of the two languages, the lilt of their vowel sounds, and even a couple of real vocabluary words thrown in for good measure, works just as well; even if it doesn't really make "sense." Because (and here's the kicker) in the context of a song like this, "making sense" per se is much less important than sounding convincingly as though you do.
  Alan (121999#185)
  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.